Vanitas Paintings Meditate on What Subject?

June 8, 2024

While the message may be a sombre one, a vanitas painting meditates not on vanity itself but on our fleeting human existence. Often depicting collections of objects, the paintings draw on memento mori (remembering death) traditions to remind viewers that worldly pleasures and accomplishments are temporary. They often include skulls as symbols of physical death, but can also feature other objects that allude to transience, including wilting flowers, rotting fruit, goblets of wine, clocks, hourglasses, jewellery, and withering sprigs of laurel or ears of corn.

In the 17th century, when vanitas were most popular, Protestant painters used still life to convey a moral message about the vanity of wealth and the inevitability of death. Their works encouraged viewers to lead more pious lives inspired by the Bible and Jesus’s life. This was a time of religious and political turmoil with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation leading to a shift in taste and the art market.

Today, artists may be less concerned with communicating a specific religious or moral message but are likely to use the same symbolic language of a vanitas in their compositions. As the exhibition at Night Cafe demonstrates, the use of objects such as skulls and candles to allude to the fickleness of this world is a long-lasting tradition in still life art. Take, for example, Katja Oxman’s print that references the Vanitas motif by incorporating a skull, a ring, and a candle. While the tumultuous history of this type of still life painting is not present in the exhibition, the themes remain relevant to our modern world.


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