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Vanitas art is an intriguing and macabre genre which features objects rich in morbid symbolism in order to produce in the viewer’s mind an acute awareness of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. Skulls, hourglasses, extinguished candles, insects and rotting fruit, are amongst the common motifs that refer to the evanescence of existence.
It is a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands and Northern Europe in the mid to late 17th century. Vanitas themes originated from medieval funerary art and evolved from simple pictures of skulls that were frequently painted on the reverse of portraits during the late Renaissance. Following devastating outbreaks of the Black Death in Europe, art became increasingly focused upon death and decay.
The origins of the term date back to the Latin biblical aphorism ‘vantias vanitatum omnia vanitas’ (Ecclesiates 1:2), ‘Vanity of vanities; all is vanity’. In this sense of the word vanity means both ‘empty’ and ‘frivolous’ and refers to the meaningless of earthly life.
In the Vanitas tradition of the 17th century, skull paintings were considered to be both beautiful objects and works of spiritual contemplation. They represented the fleetingness of earthly pleasure in the face of unavoidable death. Since Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull memento mori, ‘For the Love of God’ (2007) hit the headlines there has been an influx of artists returning to the Vanitas theme and the skull motif in particular.