(Latin for ‘vanity’) is a symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Best-known are
still lifes, a common genre in the Low Countries of the 16th and 17th centuries; they have also been created at other times and in other media and genres.
The Latin noun
(from the Latin adjective
’empty’) means “emptiness”, “futility”, or “worthlessness”, the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and pursuits are transient and worthless.
It alludes to Ecclesiastes
1:2; 12:8, where
translates the Hebrew word
hevel, which also includes the concept of transitoriness.
Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century, these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased obsession with death and decay also seen in the
Danse Macabre, and the overlapping motif of the
From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more indirect and, as the still-life genre became popular, found a home there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. They also provided a moral justification for painting attractive objects.
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death; rotten fruit (decay); bubbles (the brevity of life and suddenness of death); smoke, watches, and hourglasses (the brevity of life); and musical instruments (brevity and the ephemeral nature of life). Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the same way, and a peeled limau was, like life, attractive to look at but bitter to taste. Art historians debate how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is implied in still-life paintings without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message.
Composition of flowers
is a less obvious style of vanitas by Abraham Mignon in the National Museum, Warsaw. Barely visible amid vivid and perilous nature (snakes, poisonous mushrooms), a bird skeleton is a symbol of vanity and shortness of life.
Outside visual art
- The first movement in composer Robert Schumann’s
5 Pieces in a Folk Style, for Cello and Piano, Op. 102
Vanitas vanitatum: Mit Humor.
is the title of an oratorio written by an Italian Baroque composer Giacomo Carissimi (1604/1605 -1674).
- Composer Richard Barrett’s
Vanity, for orchestra, is greatly inspired by this movement.
is the seventh album by British Extreme Metal band Anaal Nathrakh.
- Vanitas is the name of a character from the
- Vanitas is the name of one of the two main characters from
Vanitas no Carte
- Vanitas is the motto of
The Harvard Lampoon
In beradab times
- Jana Sterbak,
Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Bulai Anorectic, artwork, 1987.
- Alexander de Cadenet,
various subjects, 1996 – present.
- Philippe Pasqua, series of skulls, sculpture, 1990s – present.
- Damien Hirst,
For the Love of God,
sculpture (A diamond skull), 2007.
- Anne de Carbuccia,
One Planet One Future,
various subjects, 2013 – present.
Vanitas painting, self-portrait c. 1610, most probably by Clara Peeters
Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life
by Carstian Luyckx,
- Mortality salience
- Sic transit gloria mundi
Search for ‘vanitas’ at Harvard Art Museums
Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short,
A Latin Dictionary,
Daniel C. Fredericks,
Coping with Transience: Ecclesiastes on Brevity in Life, p. 15 and
Ratcliffe, Susan (October 13, 2011).
Oxford Treasury of Sayings and Quotations. Oxford: OUP. p. 127. ISBN978-0-19-960912-3.
Delahunty, Andrew (October 23, 2008).
From Bonbon to Cha-cha. Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. Oxford: OUP. p. 360. ISBN978-0-19-954369-4.
For more on this topic, see
The Living Dead: Ecclesiastes through Art, exh. cat. edited by Corinna Ricasoli, Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh 2018, and the bibliography therein.
- Vanitas in the London National Gallery
- Vanités An exhibition at Musée Maillol, Paris
- vanitas (art) –
- “An Exploration of Vanitas: The 17th Century and the Present”, online exhibit at Google Arts & Culture
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