Vanitas is a term that means that all the things we strive for, value, and work at in our world are an expression of our vanity, pride or impotence.
With Wisdom Comes Sorrow
13 And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.
14 I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.
New American Standard Bible
The tem is also usually associated with the Latin term memento mori. (reminder and death) It starts much earlier than the Baroque Period, for example, in the Early Renaissance Masaccio includes a skeleton beneath the donors in this fresco with the words in Italian “What I was, you are, what I am you will become.” A reminder that everything dies. This is also the same idea in Hamlet’s musings on Death in the graveyard scene, “I knew him Horatio, he hath born me on his back a thousand times. . .” While he contemplates the skull.
So skulls and skeletons are associated with death and impermanence.
Later on when people start to become richer painters began to paint the things they bought and the delicacies, such as fruits, lobsters, and flowers, that they could now afford to have imported. Sometimes the depiction of these prestige and wealth items were regarded with some guilt about wealth and it’s association with Jesus’s teachings, “It’s harder for a wealthy man to get into heaven than it is to send a camel through the eye of a needle.” So many images that showed wealth also referenced that it might be a problem.
For example, Petrus Christus. Saint Eloy (Eligius) in his Shop 1449 shows some patrons but also a saint who used his money to help his community. Likewise, The Moneylender and his wife expresses how pretty wealth is but also it’s danger. Check out where his wife is looking and also not looking.
Later on the symbols started to be combined. For example, Caravaggio’s still life is a beautiful painting of delicacies such as fruit, but if you look closer you may notice that some of the fruit has worm holes and is also decaying.
The combination of symbols such as skulls, delicacies, flowers, books, crystal, silver and other expensive items became a standard expression of wealth, vanity, and the transience of impermanence of life. In a way, a vanitas is a way of “having your cake and eating it too.” It satisfies the viewers desire to look at beautiful objects, but also disguises it as a christian lesson about morality and wealth.
Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas c1650Come and study with me.