Omnia vanitas

The funeral procession took the tourist tour. The driver of a car in such a procession can be very prepared, program the GPS and so on, but eventually he has to go with the flow; the only certainty being the final stop. Indeed, like in life. We bent under and over the highway, past a garbage dump, past old people dressed demurely and probably also on their way to a funeral. And we drove through a narrow little street with terraced houses where our views swept slowly through the front rooms, the tiny gardens and the calm lives. “It must be strange for those people” my mother said “having a funeral procession come by a few times a day, every day.” What signified an Important Event for us, was for them just part of a permanent performance artwork in public space; a memento mori; reminding people that life is finite.


Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas (vanity of vanities, all is vanity) is a Christian message: all will perish, be aware that God and the afterlife are all that remain. In the 17th century people had vanitas paintings in the house. Vanitas works are still life paintings (sometimes combined with a (self)portrait) with symbols like skulls, a just blown out candle (smoke trail), soap bubbles, sheet music or instruments, flowers and hourglasses.

A more Darwinesque, or possibly cultural evolutionary work is this one by Peter Paul Rubens from 1616. The candle will burn up eventually but before that one can light others with it.

rubens candle


Hourglasses may be a bit old-fashioned, and music as a symbol for transience lost some of its truth since the invention of the record-player, the CD and the mp3. For those looking for a contemporary memento mori Damien Hirst is the obvious choice. Easy to understand artworks like “For the love of God”, 2007: a skull encrusted with diamonds. Or the work “A thousand years” made in 1990, that consists of a large glass case in which larvae turn into flies, that fly to the other side to lay eggs in a dead cows head, and fly toward their death against a rack of live wires. Life and death on 2 by 2 by 4 meters. Different about this work is that it is perishable itself, whereas a painting reminding us of death simultaneously says: who paints remains.


Why would non-religious people nowadays want to be reminded of death? During difficult times, like when the train leaves right in front of you, calling out “vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas!” may very well put the situation in perspective. But happy moments are appropriate too, because “carpe diem” sounds so hedonistic and go-getterlike, whilst “omnia vanitas” lends a  beautiful melancholic gravity to sunsets, getting a gold medal on the Olympics, and chocolate cake.


Those who don’t have the money for a diamond encrusted skull, and no space for a life-and-death-glass-case: realize that funeral processions are not the only performances in the memento mori tradition. Take the blowing out of candles on a birthday cake. Or bringing flowers for the birthday boy/girl, thereby saying “congratulations with your life, but remember: you will wither like these flowers in the end.” Or, and this takes a little work: buy a cat and train it to kill a small animal for you every day and put it next to your bed. It will be brought home to you first thing in the morning that all must end.


The painting by Rubens is part of the collection of the Mauritshuis museum.

The vanitas still life is (a detail of) an engraving by Pieter Schenk (1670-1713). For the whole picture go to the Rijksmuseum website.


Definition of memento mori versus vanitas:

Memento mori (“remember (that you have) to die”) is part of not just Christian but also Muslim and Buddhist tradition, and part of (classical) philosophy.

Memento Mori is an important theme in art; from medieval music to the art centered around the Mexican Day of the Dead, to Damien Hirst’s skull.

Vanitas  is a Christian theme and refers to a genre of painting that became popular in the the 17th century in the Netherlands, containing symbols of mortality like skulls and candles.


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