Saturday, February 25, 2012

Symbolic Meaning of objects used in Vanitas paintings

Some of the objects found in "vanitas"paintings had a quite direct meaning, for instance the skull, which is regarded as the universal symbol of death. Some other objects were had a more subtle message and its meaning made more sense back in XVII century United Provinces (today Netherlands) than today. Sometimes the object's intended message was the contrary to what it represented. e.g. Rich vases, oriental carpets, Chinese porcelain dishes, gilded cups and other luxury objects could be interpreted as a show of ostentation and therefore something that should be avoided.

Please note that scholars are still arguing about many of these "meanings". Here is a list of common objects found in "vanitas" paintings and their meaning: 
  • Skull: Death, this is a clear memento mori message or the transience of life, a universally recognized symbol of death.
  • Watch or hourglass: time is limited and is passing, therefore, use it wisely.  See a typical one-handle XVII century watch at the lower right of the photo.
  • Books: Human knowledge and its temporary nature.
  • Artist’s instruments e.g. Palette, brushes, easel: Indulgence in the arts, very few could afford to be painters let alone patronize the arts. 
  • Shell: they were normally exotic ones not commonly available in the Netherlands. They were a symbol of the vanity that comes with wealth, as these were exotic items at the time, only a very wealthy person would have one of those.
  • Insects, decaying flowers: transience of life. They were inserted in paintings depicting expensive objects as a reminder that life is temporary and moral considerations deserved more attention than material things. 
  • Broken or tipped over glassware: transience of life or life is fleeting.
  • Musical instruments: indulgence of the senses as a luxury. Sometimes they are present as artistic inspiration, as music would inspire artists.
  • Silk or velvet tablecloths: vanity, as these were expensive things. Silk being the ultimate fabric material and purple the most expensive dye, hence the Roman emperors wore purple tunics. 
  • Oriental rugs or carpets:  These were prohibitively expensive items, carpets were placed on tables to avoid stepping on them and causing decay in their colors or integrity. They were a symbol of wealth but also a sign of pride as they were items brought into the United Provinces through
    trade and commerce.
  • Jewelry, clothes or mirrors: remember the temporary nature of beauty, wealth and wisdom. Earthly riches are temporary and therefore life should be carried out according to the modesty traditions that were in place at the time.
  • Mirror: a clear symbol of the vanity that should be avoided.
  • Jars: Stoneware or porcelain were used for water or oil, both substance sustain life at the time.
Note that some of these objects made it to other types of Still Lifes, notably the Ontbijt (breakfast), banketjes (small banquets) and pronkstilleven (Sumptuous still life), Flower Bouquets and festoons.

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