In the 17th century, a dark genre of still-life painting flourished in Europe, particularly the Netherlands. At a time of great mercantile wealth and frequent military conflict, these paintings, known as vanitas, were ripe with symbolic objects intended to emphasize the transience of life, the futility of earthly pleasure, and the pointless quest for power and glory.
Vanitas are closely related to the earlier tradition of memento mori—Latin for “remember you must die”—artworks intended to prompt viewers to consider their mortality. Memento mori began appearing on the back of portraits in 15th-century Europe, often featuring skulls painted within a niche, and accompanied by an admonitory motto. That message would remind the sitter that while they may desire to have their appearance immortalized, the only way to preserve their soul in the afterlife is to lead a virtuous life.