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In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, though also common in other places and periods. The Latin word means "vanity" and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. Ecclesiastes from the Bible is often quoted in conjunction with this term. The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas.[Eccl. 1:2;12:8] The verse is translated as Vanity of vanities; all is vanity by the King James Version of the Bible. Vanity is used here in its older (especially pre-14th century) sense of "futility". Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless is the rendering by The New International Version of the Bible.
Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars moriendi, Danse Macabre, and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori. From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of attractive objects.
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay; bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death; smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life; and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste. There is debate among art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still-life paintings without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message. Composition of flowers is a less obvious style of Vanitas by Abraham Mignon in the National Museum in Warsaw. Barely visible amid vivid and perilous nature (snakes, poisonous mushrooms) a bird skeleton is a symbol of vanity and shortness of life.
Vanitas in modern times
- C. Allan Gilbert, All Is Vanity, drawing, 1892
- Jana Sterbak, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, artwork, 1987
- Alexander de Cadenet, Skull Portraits, various subjects, 1996 – present
- Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, sculpture (A diamond skull), 2007
Uses outside visual art
- The first movement in composer Robert Schumann's 5 Pieces in a Folk Style, for Cello and Piano, Op. 102, is entitled Vanitas vanitatum: Mit Humor. Vanitas vanitatum is also the title of an oratorio written by Italian Baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi (1604/1605 -1674).
- Composer Richard Barrett's 'Vanity', for Orchestra is greatly inspired by this movement.
Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, Pieter Claesz, 1628
Vanitas by Edward Collier
Vanitas-Still Life, Maria van Oosterwijck (1630–1693)
Vanitas, by Pieter Claesz
Vanitas Still-Life by Evert Collier,
Composition of flowers by Abraham Mignon
- 15 minutes of fame – modern phrase on fleeting vanity
- Memento mori
- Sic transit gloria mundi
- Ubi sunt
- Tempus fugit
- Esaak, Shelley. "vanitas painting". About.com. Retrieved March 30, 2012.
- Oxford English Dictionary, on vanity
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