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Vanitas: Vanities and Their Bonfires

Updated: May 7, 2021

Detail from The Repentant Madeleine by Caravaggio, 1597.

Baubles, bangles, bright shiny beads, and that wasn't all. Vanitas, or the vanities, covered every earthly delight that one could imagine. In the detail above, we see the jewels that a repentant Marie Madeleine cast aside, as she sat with her head bowed thinking of what was truly important in life - supposedly not her jeweled adornments. The Baroque period was a time in Europe when the Church wished to reclaim its adherents by reminding them that though Europe was getting wealthy from all the new found treasures in other parts of the world (America and Africa), the day would come when nothing mattered but the goodness of the soul, so you'd better repent while you had the chance. This theme, of course, appeared in the Middle Ages, carried through the Renaissance (think of Florence in the 1490s with Savonarola and his bonfires of the vanities) into Mannerism (1500s) and spiked again in the Baroque. With all those centuries of preaching about the evil of possessions, wouldn't the message have been received? Well, we humans like our earthly goods, and those members of the clergy in their fine robes, miters of gold and silver, jeweled rings, etc. may not have set a good example. As for the painters, well it was good business painting the richly dressed who were supposedly casting aside vanity while showing off what they had. Just take a look at the gentlemen below.

The two fine men represented here are commonly identified as Jean de Dinteville (on the left) and Georges de Selve (on the right), though there is some debate about the exact identities. The former was the French Ambassador to the Court of Henry VIII of England and the latter was the Bishop of Lavaur. The two were also probably brothers (you can see a slight resemblance). There they stand in their great dignity, fine robes, furs even. Between the two of them, they cover the secular and the religious worlds. Behind them a patterned drapery in rich cloth and between them instruments that show they are well traveled, knowledgeable, and aware of both the sciences (globes, various mechanical instruments) and the arts (the lute and the open books). Being ambassadors and therefore diplomats, the lute has a broken string, which was a symbol of discord, here between the secular world and the religious authorities. These guys have all bases covered and don't step on anybody's toes.

And just to make sure that everyone knows they are not what they wear, they have Holbein sneak in what is known as an anamorphic skull, that is a skull painted so that a side view of it is necessary for it to reveal itself. Perhaps it was meant to hang at an angle (some suggest on a stairway), so the skull would leap out at the viewer. Though it is also suggested that Holbein was just showing off his skills as a painter. He did the whole painting in oils in the style of the Flemish masters with great attention to detail. At any rate, one can see how intent these men were to show their wealth and achievement while also claiming piety. After all one never knows when the Grim Reaper will show up, so better have your act together.

Still Life with Large Roemer, Lemons and Grapes by Pieter Claez, 1646.

However, such paintings of the wealthy and important were not the only way for the vanities to show up. Pieter Claesz was a 17th century master of the "banketje" or painting of a banquet scene. We have all seen those paintings of Dutch tables laden with all kinds of edibles, wine glasses, and lovely dinnerware. Great displays of wealth for sure, but something else as well. Notice the cut flowers, lovely but only for a short while, since once cut they will soon wind up in the trash bin. The half peeled lemon is also a symbol of life's entropy, the unraveling and falling apart. The bread is partially eaten, and one of the glasses is turned over. All this luxury and beauty is presented in refined detail and with the appropriately pious message that it all will change and move to some final end. Now as a painter, I look at this and understand the symbolic meanings, but I also just know in my artist's soul that Claesz, who made a good living doing these paintings, also probably really enjoyed creating the luminosity in the glass, the reflections in the wine, the dimpled skin of the lemon peel, and the shine on those grape skins. Was it this kind of painter's vanity that caused Botticelli to throw some of his paintings into Savonarola's bonfires?

Detail of The Lute Player by Caravaggio, 1596-1597

Of course, Caravaggio was the real bad boy when it came to showing vanities while subtly reveling in a dissolute life. His chiaroscuro style of painting garnered a number of followers and worked so well with the themes of the Baroque, which wanted to contrast life (and its riches) with death. Here we have the lute again and the sheet music. It seems that music was a symbol of the ephemeral, as it happened in a moment. Of course, in those days it was not recorded, so it came and it went, not unlike human existence. Weighty stuff, I know, but even so, life is to be lived, and all of the vanities clearly show that, even while they give a symbolic nod to the inevitable. So as we come upon the season of tricks and treats, All Souls Day, and the Day of the Dead, I leave you with a joyful Caravaggio, Amor Victorious (1602), arrows of love, musical instruments, and lots of flesh. Remember to live while the living is good, for tomorrow...

Amor Victorious by Caravaggio, 1602

Do you think that we still see Vanitas today? How do they appear?

Paintings are from public domain sources, including Creative Commons for the National Gallery of London and Wiki Commons.

For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at

She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on

© Marjorie Vernelle 2019

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Yes, good old bad old Caravaggio. Live for today!


Nov 03, 2019

Love the mischievous Amor Victorious!

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