Vanitas – symbols of death & decadence

Looking back at the ‘Memento Mori’ painting tradition, Vanitas is a macabre genre of symbolic still-life that prospered in the Netherlands in the early 17th century reminding the viewer of their mortality. 

The word ‘vanitas’ is Latin for vanity, or ’emptiness’, and signifies the meaningless of earthly life. The purpose of Vanitas’ paintings was to caution the viewer to be careful about placing too much importance in the pleasures of this life as they could become an obstacle on the path to salvation.


A Vanitas Still Life
A Vanitas Still Life by Peeter Sion (fl.17th century) Photo © Christie’s Images 

Origins of the genre

The wealthy middle class of the 17th century Dutch Republic invented capitalism as we know it today. Through their dominance of international trade, they spawned an era of scientific advances and fabulous riches. And, as a by-product of this, they gave us one of the greatest art movements the world has ever seen: the Dutch Golden Age

Since the northern Netherlands had become Protestant, religious art was replaced by other genres of painting and precious objects and luxury items made their way into still-life paintings. Unprecedented wealth and Calvinist morality seems to have provoked a degree of soul-searching and the Vanitas genre evolved as an acknowledgement of something distasteful about this decadence.    


Vanitas, (an allegorical still life) The symbolism of Vanitas objects

The objects in this painting have been chosen to communicate the ‘Vanitas’ message which is summarized 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… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Vanitas themes originate from medieval funerary art and include symbols such as death or transience (skulls, clocks, burning candles, flowers), soap bubbles (representing the brevity and fragility of life), wealth (jewels, expensive cloth) and the vain pursuits of mankind (sheet music, quill).

Vanitas by Edwaert Collier (c.1640-c.1702) Photo © Rafael Valls Gallery



Several of the greatest Dutch still-life painters, including Jan Davidsz de Heem, Willem Claesz Heda and Harmen van Steenwyck were masters of the vanitas still life, and the influence of the genre can be seen in the iconography of artists working today, including Damien Hirst.


Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, c.1640 (oil on oak panel)Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, c.1640 b Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56) / National Gallery, London 

Vanitas paintings were purchased by the rich who possessed a conscience about the wealth they had accumulated. However the genre had an in-built contradiction in the irony that the paintings were also valuable and collectible commodities and, as such, became ‘Vanitas’ objects themselves. 



Whenever you see flies or insects in a still life – a wilted petal, a black spot on the apple – the painter is giving you a secret message. He’s telling you that living things don’t last – it’s all temporary Death in life…”

“Maybe you don’t see it at first with all the beauty and bloom, the little speck of rot. But if you look closer – there it is”

Extract from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  

Still-life with Fruit and Insects, (oil on canvas)
Still-life with Fruit and Insects (detail) by Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) Photo © Christie’s Images 



Find out more

See more Vanitas paintings in the Bridgeman archive available for licensing

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