Vanitas and Memento Mori: The Ephemeral Nature of Life

Vanitas or “emptiness” was a form of funereal art popular in Northern Europe during the seventeenth century that dealt with the ephemeral nature of life. The still lifes featured skulls to remind the viewer of the certainty of death. Other motifs included bubbles, smoke, burning candles, and hourglasses to symbolize the finiteness of time. Cut flowers were also used to remind man that earthly pleasures are fleeting; just as the skin and flesh leave the skull so do the petals fall from the bloom. Memento mori, or “remember you must die” was a form of the genre that dates back to antiquity. These were more varied in style as in Dutch painter Frans Hals’ (1580 -1666) Youth with Skull. Philippe de Champaigne (1602 – 1674) was a Flemish born Frenchman who painted Vanitas showing a skull flanked by a cut tulip and an hourglass. Dutch artist Jacques de Gheyn the Elder (1565 -1629) painted the earliest known vanitas in which the scull gazes on useless coins and is haunted by a bubble containing grim images: a wheel of torture, a leper’s rattle and a flaming heart. A twentieth century interpretation of the subject can be seen in American abstract expressionist Walter Kuhlman’s (1918-2009) Memento mori.