case study of vanitas

case study of vanitas

The Symbolism of Vanitas in Art

1. Introduction

The Vanitas genre was a form of artistic expression which originated in the 17th century in the Netherlands, when the country was the most affluent and powerful. The genre developed in the early 17th century and was popular throughout the next 200 years. Like the popularity of the genre, Vanitas art has a rich art history. The word ‘Vanitas’ itself is Latin, and can be translated in English to mean ’emptiness’ or ‘falseness’. Theologians, artists, and laypersons of that time believed that the material world was a false reality. This concept of the fleetingness of man’s life is portrayed throughout Vanitas art. This concept of the passing of life is much older than the 17th century, however, and the tradition of symbolically portraying ‘memento mori’ (‘remember you will die’) goes back to Medieval times. Vanitas art is born of the concept of ‘memento mori’ and the celebration of human sense and ability. This is as the ultimate aim of Vanitas artwork is a reminder of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. This was portrayed through still life compositions which contained symbols such as skulls, timepieces, snuffed out candles, rotting fruit, and wilting flowers. These symbols were used to remind people of the fragility of their own lives and the inevitability of death. The use of symbols from contemporary culture and depictions of the five senses were used in Vanitas art to make the works appealing in the first instance. However, these symbols were often accompanied by moralizing inscriptions and were well-thought-out visual metaphors designed to enlighten the viewer.

2. Historical Background

The arrival of Vanitas was in the 16th and 17th century. The years of this era were between 1550-1650. The culture of the Dutch at that era were occupied with an economic advance, prosperity, and a bloom of capitalist commodities. Still, as an autonomous state that left the phase of revolution, this period was seen as an individualist society, maka kehidupan maupun kemakmuran were dependent on personal effort. Inner and outer attitudes of the society were also influenced by a certain Jansenist theological doctrine that was quite compatible with the Calvinist doctrine that has been adhered to by most Protestants in Dutch. Jansenist doctrine has been previously related to a doctrine of predestination and human sinful nature. The impact of this double doctrine was visible in the form of various genres of Vanitas art that abounded during the period, even though neither Jansenism nor special types of Vanitas genre as an art product has ever been explicitly or generally approved in Dutch society at the time. On the other hand, economic progress and the attitude of emerging individualism with an emphasis on personal efforts have led to a climate of increasingly uncontrolled competition to pursue wealth and self-centeredness. This situation has resulted in a contradiction and a hidden disappointment in the heart of society over materialistic achievement and prosperity, putting forward the underlying fears and doubts of the transitory nature of life and the uncertainty of human fate, which tends to be increasingly ignored. The situation was getting worse after a war with Spain in 1568-1648, which devastated the natural environment and greatly disturbed the economic activities of society, including painters. These factors provide fertile ground for the development of a strong counter-revolutionary movement.

3. Vanitas in Art

As previously mentioned, the dichotomy of art and scripture is everywhere in Vanitas art, but has varying intensity between works dependent on intended audience and artist influence. Some pieces are very detailed in their symbolism, such as The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, which may go unnoticed by a casual observer. Others rely more heavily on the script to convey the moral of the subject, such as the quote “Eadem utraque res” in Latin, meaning ‘Both are one and the same’. This piece is open to more generic interpretation; however, the use of the familiar ‘Lady Death’ scene between the two householders would allow the observer to see the abundant material wealth as the possession of either.

Vanitas Vanitatum Omnia Vanitas. In its most original form, Vanitas art contains a dichotomy of etchings and verses designed to create a neurotic observance of those who partook in earthly vanities. This type of art was never widely commercial, but received critical acclaim and collectability. The focus of Vanitas art is built upon the widespread cultural movement of Memento Mori (Latin ‘Remember that you must die’), a reflection on mortality that aims to remind participants of their own inevitable fate. Vanitas art serves to remind us of this by heightening the sense of death’s impending grip on the seasoned consumer of life’s vanities. This reminder is portrayed mostly through ‘Vanitas symbols’ – highly symbolic illustrations or words of the inevitable decay or death of the grandest notion of material achievement. A common representation is the motif of a skull, a direct memento of death’s omnipresence and the equalizer of what lies beneath.

4. Interpretations and Meanings

Lawrence Steefel is one such authority subscribing to this interpretation, stating: “The vanitas painters sought to warn their contemporaries that all vocational or avocational pursuits and, indeed, life itself, are but mutable phenomena leading nowhere except back to death, and if there is to be a turning aside from this inexorable destiny, it is to essentia eterna”. Einar Petterson takes a similar line, identifying vanitas as “moralizing art with a clear dogmatic content, a deeply rooted, conservative moralizing with the aim to conserve the rigid ascetic ideal of the time”.

A common interpretation perceives vanitas to represent a sonic exercise in futility and pointlessness. It is seen as rendering a profoundly cynical view of the world, the brevity of life, and the insignificance of human achievements. The more extreme type of interpretation takes the form of memento mori painting, translating as a “reminder of death”. These paintings are essentially ‘pep talks’ urging one to flee mundane wickedness and to the contemplation of real and eternal values.

5. Conclusion

Thus far, I have attempted to illustrate the variety of potential meanings and context that have been embodied in the vanitas symbol. We see how greatly the original religious concept within Christianity has been reapplied to many secular situations, often in a satirical way. We also see how relative the vanitas symbol was, in some examples it serves as a memento mori, yet in others a token of worldly achievement. Embodying both a celebration of life and a preparation for death, the symbol often raises questions about the spiritual state of the object and the intention of its creator. This is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the vanitas symbol. This complexity has undoubtedly been the source of its enduring fascination for the viewer. In the course of several centuries, the audience for vanitas art may have vastly different cultural and philosophical attitudes towards its motifs. Yet the symbol itself remains identifiable in its diversity, rendering it essentially timeless. In moving away from the dualistic interpretations of vanitas which have characterized much writing on the topic, I hope to have revealed something of the multivalent nature of this enduring symbol.

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