Here is my finished piece exploring the art of the Vanitas. What a fascinating subject matter to dive into.
Vanitas I - The Death of Superman, oil on panel, 11 x 14 inches © Jim Serrett
Memento mori is a Latin phrase which means "remember that you have to die", the phrase certainly speaks about the frailty of life and our mortality. Originating from a practice common in Ancient Rome; as a general came back victorious from a battle, and during his parade ("Triumph") received compliments and honors from the crowd of citizens. He ran the risk of falling victim to haughtiness and delusions of grandeur; to avoid this, a slave stationed behind him would say "Respice post te. Hominem te memento" (“Look after you [to the time after your death] and remember you're [only] a man."). Memento mori!” Remember that you will die!”
The early religious imagery surrounding death was often used as motivator to live a good, meaningful and virtuous life. Churches would commission and display memento mori art to compel viewers to meditate on death, reflect on their lives, and re-dedicate themselves to their theology.
By the seventeenth century Dutch Masters like Adam Bernaert, Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda had turn this imagery into a genre of its own called Vanitas, still life paintings which often contained religious and allegorical symbolism to remind us how vain and insignificant our human concerns are and consequently, how important it is to turn to God/deity. 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.
Still Life with a Skull by Philippe de Champaigne,
Vanitas c. 1671 is reduced to three essentials Life, Death, and Time
Keep in mind we are talking about the Golden Age of Dutch culture, the Netherlands was an economic and cultural powerhouse in the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company was the largest commercial enterprise in the world, controlling more than half of all oceangoing trade. The Dutch were enjoying a very high quality of living for the era, and artists like Rembrand, Frans Hals and Vermeer were producing works of art at a caliber and quality that still astonish us today. With the wealth and exotic goods of it's far-flung trade, there seemed to be a considerable interest in religious themed imagery that had a moral lesson with some symbolic reminder of death to underscore the “vanity” of life and the need to be morally prepared for final judgment.
A Vanitas Still Life with Skull, Books, Römer, Oil Lamp and Pen, by Pieter Claesz,
c. 1645 Oil on wood 15.5 x 23.5 in
The Oligarchy Vs Theocracy of the seventeenth century Dutch Republic and Painting in the Dutch Golden Age are pretty interesting subjects, certainly a fascinating period of history. Below I have added a couple links that go further in depth.
However, I want to stay speaking about the imagery and metaphors that these Dutch Master were creating. The symbolic meaning of objects used in Vanitas paintings runs a gambit of psychological nuances and subtleties. Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit (decay); bubbles (the brevity of life and suddenness of death); smoke, watches and hourglasses, (the briefness of life); and musical instruments (brevity and the ephemeral nature of life). The skulls and empty glass are fairly obvious. Some of it may be a little ambiguous today, decaying flowers, insects and fruits, but for most I think the allegories can be interpreted to where they still reveal a hidden meaning or truth. And in that is the universal truth, the one thing, that no matter what socio-economic background or theocratic religion, the same reality exists, just how short our existence is. And what we do with it does matter.
As the late great comedian Gene Wider said, "Time is a precious thing. Never waste it." That is the meaning or narrative I get from those Vanitas and memento mori pieces. Yes, remember that you are mortal humans, that yes each of us will die in time. We are not ten feet tall and bulletproof, little reminders that we are not Superman might be good for us. So the candle will go out, we must come to terms and know our mortality/humanity.
But we must also not forget, Memento vivere - Remember to live!
Explore - Question - Learn - Enjoy, Jim
Links of interest.
Studio Blog - jimserrettstudio.com
Landscape Blog - Pochade Box Paintings