Sunday, January 22, 2012

Vanitas Paintings and their symbol categories

In the last article about Vanitas, I briefly discussed the socioeconomic environment prevalent during the birth of this type of painting. Today I will discuss some of the objects and their symbolism.
The term ‘ Vanitas’ comes the opening verse of Ecclesiastes 1:2 in the Latin Bible 'Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas': vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Because their symbolism and allegoric meaning, these were almost religious paintings but presented as still lifes. Vanitas symbols were common in many of the Dutch Golden Age paintings, decaying flowers, hourglasses, watches, etc. 

These objects were meant to communicate the Vanitas message which as presented in the Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." 

Objects in a typical Vanitas painting were representative or symbols. Experts group them into 3 main categories: 

About the transience of life and death: bones from humans or animals, time pieces e.g.hourglasses or watches. In this group were the candles and oil lamps with smoke wicks, soap bubbles, decaying flower, broken glasses or sometimes half empty. See first photo at top left as a good example 

Our earthly existence: books, scientific, musical or artistic instruments, collectibles or just valuable objects like weapons, armor, shells, globes, precious metal coins or money, pipes, tobacco related articles, dice, cards and plaster sculptures. See photo at top left as an example. 

Resurrection: Ivy, wheat or Laurel which are normally shown beneath or crowning the skull.

Quite often vanitas symbols made it to other type of paintings like the still life ‘banquets’, ‘breakfasts’, ‘sumptuous’ or flower bouquets. See the extinguished candle in the "ointbijtje" at right.

Next article I will discuss some of the most common written messages in these paintings, like the one shown in the top-right photo

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