What Subject Do Vanitas Paintings Meditate On?

June 8, 2024

What subject do vanitas paintings meditate on?

Vanitas paintings depict the fleetingness of earthly wealth and pleasure, often contrasting symbols of wealth with symbols of ephemerality and decay. Typical objects in these paintings include gold jewellery, purses and wallets; musical instruments, books, globes and spyglasses indicating wealth and education; fresh fruits and vegetables that will soon rot; and skulls, flowers, candles and hourglasses signifying death and its certainty.

The message of transience can be interpreted in two ways: the more pessimistic vanitas paintings show how nothing in this world is worth clinging onto; the other, with its more hopeful roots, compares the vainness of mortal life to the prospect of eternal life in heaven. Either way, the themes are universal and appeal to both rich and poor people.

Moreover, vanitas and memento mori art were popular during religious eras like the Counter-Reformation or Calvinism; the latter devalued possessions as mere vanity, while the former encouraged followers to refocus their lives on God, away from worldly possessions and successes. Vanitas painting became an ideal outlet for artists to explore complex subjects with hyper-realism.

Although many still-life paintings are vanitas, the genre could also be used to meditate on any subject imaginable. The artist could even choose to portray a person rather than a bunch of fruit or other objects; the image of someone admiring themselves in a mirror can also convey the same message. Furthermore, the artist doesn’t need to add a skull or another explicit symbol of death to a work to make it a vanitas.


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