This article was originally published on 18 February, 2021.
Still life paintings. Fruits and flowers on tables. Skulls, hourglasses, and books carefully posed and intricately and skillfully painted. No movement, no change, no life. Boring, you think, what is the point of someone dedicating so much time and energy to such a monotonous result? There is a reason they are placed at the very bottom of the French Academy’s hierarchy for genres of art after all. These paintings are classified by their lack of excitement and life.
Yes, dearest reader, I am going to go so far as to make the argument that one can view still lives with a renewed appreciation these days. For the still life subject matter goes further than simply flowers and fruits. Its close cousins (or sub-categories even): memento mori and vanitas paintings explore themes of mortality and the worthlessness of earthly pleasures. Both issues of angst that I believe the modern uni student can very well relate to in the midst of a global pandemic and lockdown number three.
Literally meaning “remember you must die” in Latin, these macabre pieces confer the fragile state of mortality. In a memento mori painting one will almost always find a still life rendition of a skull of some kind, not always human, surrounded by other symbols alluding to the passage of time and gradual decay. These symbols range from clocks, sundials, and hourglasses to recently extinguished or almost burnt out candles. Yes, they often contain the basic fruit and flower medley as well, but only because those two substances rot and wither so fast. Hasn’t your mother ever told you not to pick a flower because as soon as you do it is dying? Well, consider yourself and your lifeforce the flower in this symbolism. The memento mori still life was made most popular in the 17th century, when the popular religious belief was that life on earth was merely a preparation for the afterlife. Picasso and other more modern artists explored this genre as well, so perhaps an obsession with our own death is not an intrinsically religious topic. Memento mori artists often blurred the line of definition between themselves and their cousin the vanitas painting, often aiming to shame those who wished their images to be immortalized in portraits by reminding them that their faces will eventually decay and leave only bones. On the exterior panel of Jan Gossaert’s Carondelet Diptych (1517), the artist was kind enough to spell this out for us the viewer on a painted slip of paper above a skull with a dislocated jaw. It reads: “He who thinks always of death can easily scorn all things.”
That inscription brings us nicely to the vanitas painting. I find it easiest to differentiate the two sub-genres by referring back somewhat to the rules one uses to differentiate between the rectangle and the square in geometry: all vanitas are memento mori, but not all memento mori paintings are vanitas. I only mean to say that vanitas paintings always refer to the fleeting nature of human life, but also to the vanity of worldly possessions. Another religious ideal, the vanitas still life was first inspired by the Bible in the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Symbols like skulls and smoking candles abound, but also musical instruments, books, wine, scientific objects, and sometimes even paintings to remind the viewer of their worthlessness. One masterful vanitas still life painting is Pieter Boel’s Allegory of Worldly Life (1663). The work condemns the grandiose ornamentation of Baroque art by portraying many beautiful objects, such as a gilded parade helmet, tiaras for a king and a pope, all sitting on top and around a sarcophagus in a cathedral that appears to be on the verge of collapse and ruin. The eye is drawn upwards on this pile of splendor to a skull with a crown of laurel leaves, pointing to both the inevitability of death and the futility of war, art, and other earthly achievements. In the end, death conquers all, and this painting is trying to show how only the church can save you from meaninglessness.
I am in no way trying to urge my readers to shun their possessions and contemplate nihilism until they’re empty inside. I merely mean to shed a new light on still life paintings, and perhaps convince you of their continued relevance in today’s climate. Personally, I believe that the power of art in all its forms transcends time and thus mortality. After all, if monotony is something that can be made beautiful, then maybe we all can find some art in the humdrummity of our lives which have (temporarily) been stilled.