Vanity of vanities, all is vanity

The title is an old testament quotation (Ecclesiastes 1:2) offering the foundations for a type of painting called vanitas. These essentially consist of still life paintings which flourished in the Netherlands throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The aim of such paintings was to deliver a morally-driven message by putting a distinction between objects symbolising mortality and those symbolising worldly pleasure. One of the pioneers of the vanitas genre was Harmen Steenwijck, whose painting, “Still life: An allegory of the vanities of Human life,” may provide us with a universally relatable theme for reflection on our daily life, in spite of the odd 300 years that have elapsed since its conception.

Immediately one can see that there is a variety of objects piled up and scattered on the table. The ray of light coming from an unknown source directs our immediate attention to the skull which most commonly symbolises inevitable death. The unknown source of light might refer to all that is coming from beyond… from God, giving the subject spiritual and immaterial depth. This reminds the viewer of the transience and frailty of human life, alongside the watch and the oil lamp. On the other hand, the table has other objects which depict the vanities and pursuits of an active human mind and body, such as studying and collection through the sword, shell and books.

The word ‘Vanity’ frequently has a negative connotation, as a result leading us to believe that such vanities do indeed have a negative impact on our human lives and that they should, therefore, be avoided. On the other hand, the painting is inviting us to an empty space in the left upper triangular space, a space which could potentially remind us of the ever-present Holy Trinity, amid the “noise” of a table (life) replete with objects and distractions. It is indeed from this space that one is invited to sit back and take in all the objects that are on the table and reflect upon them.

I also carried out this exercise and gradually came to the realisation that the skull, rather than death alone, could actually represent faith and God, while the surrounding objects aid us to fulfill that… to reach, so to speak, God. If the objects are seen as separate values or as single pursuits, it would inevitably lead to an empty life and, by extension, an empty faith. In fact on the right side of the painting there is a vase, which we are not quite sure what it contains. It might be empty, or it might be full. Personally, I believe that whatever it is, full or not, depends on what you make of this whole array of objects that fulfill your life and faith.

Pursuing just one of the vanities and making it the central focus of your life is what would, ironically, render life meaningless, even if it’s just a matter of constantly chasing time day after day. On the other hand, placing God in the centre of all these vanities and of your time, and thus making every moment count – the eternal present – is what gives meaning to life and would, to return back to the painting, fill your vase.

Image: The National Gallery

Debbie Debono

Pietre Vive is an international community of Ignatian youths, both lay and not, who aim to provide individuals and groups of people with the opportunity to rediscover Christian monuments and works of art in their original role of hospitality, evangelisation and prayer.

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