“Oh death please consider my age
Please don’t take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hands”
-O, Death by Ralph Stanley
Vanitas were the Dutch’s way of reminding you that death is imminent. Much like the Raven in Poe’s unforgettable poem, the Flemish and Dutch painters make sure you don’t walk away without thinking about your own death. However, they can’t just paint corpses and gore – especially not then – so they lure you in with beautifully rendered silver, flowers, and often glassware; and it ends up taking a minute for the reality of the image to sink in. After spending a few moments with the work, you begin to notice flowers wilting and bugs crawling on them, rotting fruit or meat, or most obviously, a skull.
Everything from the book to the open watch- even the pearls and coins have established meaning relating to the passing of time and inevitability of death! These paintings are meant to act as moral guides, reminding you that you can’t hold on to your wealth and beauty in death.
Similar in meaning to the popular memento mori (latin for ‘Remember that you have to die’), it was often Christians that produced works of both literary and visual art steeped in the mortality of humans, likely due to the severity of divine punishment. However, reminders of our death have stuck around for centuries, even taxidermy has persisted as an art form! It’s safe to say we as a species will always be fascinated by death and curious about what- if anything- happens after we die.
Memento Mori, my friends.
(featured image is Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671)