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Vanitas Still Lifes

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Vanitas Still Life – Posters for Everything in Life and in the Arts is Vain

Everything earthly is ephemeral; everything is subjected to constant decay, even humans and all of their works. This fundamental attitude to life and death is described by the term “vanitas” in arts. The Latin word for vanity is applied in its older meanings “futile” and “meaningless”. Vanitas motifs add the aspect of the absent to the artistic representation of lifeless objects in still life painting. They merge beauty and evanescence. Thereby, recurrent symbols of fading indicate the past. According to its essential message – everything is vain in the eyes of death – the vanitas painting exposes its own vanity and ephemerality. As a popular motif in literature, theatre, music and fine arts, vanitas developed during Renaissance and ultimately peaked in the splendour of Baroque. First and foremost, this style of still life painting gained significance in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. Painters like David Bailly created illustrations of decay in a virtuoso manner. Similar to Bailly’s works, the still lifes by Rembrandt’s student Gerard Dou were influenced by his master’s earthy colouration. Eerily beautiful vanitas still lifes are available in the online-shop at Posterlounge.co.uk. Preferably printed on canvas but also on art posters, they exude a mystical aura and invite the beholder to decipher their symbolism.

A fascinating search for the meaning of Vanitas symbols

Whereas contemporary beholders were familiar with characteristic symbols, the main appeal today is in the decoding of their complex meanings. What looks like arbitrarily arranged objects in fact reveals a warning message, often linked to an appreciation of Christian values. One of the most powerful symbols for death is the skull, which serves as a mirror to the beholder and suggests his or her mortality. Just like masks and jewellery, the mirror itself represents human vanity and superficiality. The purity of pearls, on the other hand, is symbolic of Jesus Christ. The fading of power and luxury aspired after in life is implied by status symbols, such as crowns, laurel wreaths or chains of office. The same holds true for precious bowls, coins or exotic food. Moreover, overripe fruit suggest that abundance and prosperity are not permanent. Quarry has a similar meaning, because animal carcasses imply culinary delights as well as mortality. Even art itself is ephemeral: like sheet music and unplayed instruments, letters and scripts written by humans fall into oblivion without their authors and addressees. Thus, personal possessions depicted as vanitas motifs always refer to the absence of their owners, living humans who create and use them. The theme of absence is repeated in blank areas, empty vessels and a vague background.

Spine-tingling splendour with mysterious vanitas art prints

The play on absence in vanitas still lifes adds a further appeal to their perception by beholders. Flowers and tobacco cannot be smelled; music cannot be heard. Thus, the painting reveals its own limitations while simultaneously it captures one’s imagination. Such art prints and posters draw their mysterious allure from a spine-tingling play on splendour and death. With artfully arranged objects and their underlying meanings, vanitas still lifes breathe an echo of lush Baroque painting into the modern world. And like everything else, even this is ephemeral.