These Lush 17th-Century Paintings Were Striking Reminders of Mortality

Cath Pound
Oct 28, 2019 4:46PM

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Exterior panel of Jan Gossaet, Carondelet Diptych, 1517. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jacques de Gheyn the Younger, Vanitas Still Life , 1603. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


One famous memento mori appears on an exterior panel of Jan Gossaert’s Carondelet Diptych (1517) at the Louvre. The artist painted a skull with a dislocated jaw—an allusion to the dissolution of the personality after death. The somber message below reads: “He who thinks always of death can easily scorn all things.”

In Jacques de Gheyn II’s Vanitas Still Life (1603)—the earliest known work of that genre—the artist portrayed a skull with a large soap bubble floating above it. The piece nods to the notion of homa bulla: the idea that humanity is as ephemeral and fragile as the bubble itself, which was familiar at the time from the Adages of Erasmus. Reflected in the bubble, the artist depicted a wheel of torture and a leper’s rattle, indicating the various misfortunes that may befall a man during his life. The cut flowers and smoking urn featured on either side of the painting also symbolize the brevity of life, while the coins and medallions scattered at the bottom of the piece refer to the folly of worldly wealth.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Violin and Glass Ball, 1628. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As these paintings proliferated throughout the 17th century, artists used a great variety of objects to express the principles of vanitas. Skulls, snuffed candles, and burnt-out lamps were some of the most obvious symbols of mortality. A clay pipe trailing wisps of smoke vanishing into the ether was another potent allusion to the fleeting nature of human life. Hourglasses, open pocket watches, and clocks suggested the passing of time and subtly reprimanded those who waste the precious resource.

When positioned alongside these symbols, an empty or overturned roemer glass (a German wine glass with a green stem) could suggest the transience of life. Instruments such as the lute conveyed a similar message; music became a metaphor for vanity or the ephemerality of human existence.

More subtle allusions to death could also be found in still-life paintings featuring flowers or fruit, such as Balthashar van der Ast’s Fruit Basket (ca. 1632). While the grapes, which often symbolized Christ, are still fresh, other fruits are blighted by bruises and wormholes. The presence of flies and lizards, both of which could represent evil, hint at the physical and moral decay that will occur if one does not follow a righteous path.

Some paintings included attributes that were specific to a particular person’s life, such as scientific instruments, works of art, or military insignia and weapons. These would often be portrayed alongside more obvious vanitas symbols to encourage contemplation of one’s chosen path.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing, 1605–05. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As Sybille Ebert-Schifferer notes in her Still Life: A History (1998), the university town of Leiden, famous for its theological faculty and humanistic tradition, was noted for its vanitas still-lifes featuring books or scientific objects. Such motifs derived from medieval portrayals of St. Jerome, the patron saint of Christian intellectuals. He was often depicted while meditating in his cell, which was typically furnished with books, an hourglass, and a skull.

Certain paintings may have stressed the humanistic concept that spiritual and intellectual pursuits outlive mortal existence. However, dog-eared books heaped in negligent disorder may have been intended to criticize the vanity of professions and warn against excessive pride in learning.

Antonio de Pereda, Allegory of Transience, c. 1640. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Other works elegantly alluded to the futile quest for power, such as Antonio de Pereda’s Allegory of Transience (ca. 1640). An angel holds in her hand a cameo portraying the King of Spain and Emperor Charles V, while gesturing to the globe to show the once-great extent of the Habsburg Empire which, almost a century after his death, lay divided. Skulls surround the fine armor and weapons on the table at her side, indicating the pointless human cost of such endeavors.

Peter Boel’s Allegory of Worldly Life (1663) is considered a masterpiece of the vanitas genre. Upon viewing the work, the eye is instantly drawn to the baroque grandeur of its sweeping symbolic content. Keep looking, and you’ll realize that this splendor is sitting atop a sarcophagus in a slowly crumbling church.

Pieter Boel, Allegory of Worldly Life, 1663. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Several objects, including a parade helmet, a breastplate, and a quiver of arrows, allude to the vainglorious nature of military conquest. Meanwhile, the vanity of intellectual and artistic achievement is suggested via an artist’s palette, books, and documents. A king’s crown, a bishop’s mitre, a papal tiara, and a crowned turban sitting atop a robe of ermine-edged silk brocade are emblems of political and ecclesiastical power. Those items visually and symbolically lead to a skull crowned with a simple laurel wreath—a potent reminder that death conquers all.

Or, perhaps, not quite all. In his Vanitas Still Life with violin and glass ball (ca. 1628), Pieter Claesz, one of the finest still-life painters of the Dutch Golden Age, shows off his virtuosity in his depiction of a number of vanitas motifs. An overturned roemer reflects a window, which can also be seen on the left side of the composition in a glass ball—where we can also see Claesz himself. The artist combined the early Netherlandish innovation of a convex mirror, which throws back an image from the viewer’s space, with the ephemeral symbol of homa bulla. By portraying himself at work within the orb, Claesz is insisting that the power of art transcends time.

Cath Pound