Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Vanitas: Northern European Still Life Painting

Vanitas: Northern European Still Life Painting

Frans Snyders 1579-1657
Still Life done between 1635 and 1639 
Vanitas in the arts is a symbolic painting style associated with Northern European still life painting usually in Flanders and the Netherlands. Vanitas comes from the Latin word that means emptiness and is translated as the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. "The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity by the King James Version of the Bible, and Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless by the New International Version of the Bible." (wikipedia). These symblic works were painted in the 16th and 17th centuries. This painting genre always included morbid symbols to reference human mortality. The single purpose of vanitas were to remind one how short life is and the inevitability of death. 

The symbols used in vanitas many times included skulls, rotten fruit and dying flowers. Skulls were used as a reminder of a certain death; the rotten fruit symbolized decay and aging. Another symbol used were bubbles symbolizing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and suddenness of death. Other symbols may have included old books that symbolized the passing of time, smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which also symbolized the brevity of life. Sometimes musical instruments were painted which symbolized brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies also symbolized life’s ephemeral nature. Fruit like a peeled lemon, while being attractive to look at was bitter to taste.  


 Another good example of a vanitas is seen above. This work by Dutch painter Harmen Steenwyck (1612-1656) shows some of the symbolism used in a vanitas. "Vanitas paintings caution the viewer to be careful about placing too much importance in the wealth and pleasures of this life, as they could become an obstacle on the path to salvation." 

Read more about Vanitas and Dutch Still Life




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