Vanity, Vanity, Painting Vanity

An intuitive understanding of the causes of human suffering was expressed by Dutch painters over 400 years ago, well before they could have known of the insights that gave inspiration to spiritual seekers in the East. The Dutch were becoming masters of what came to be called “still life” paintings. There is much more to these paintings than meets the eye.

Many of us have learned from the mystics the limitations of the intellect and indeed how deceptive it can be if relied upon too much. In the paintings of Pieter Claesz (1597-1661), Vanitas Still Life (1630) and Still Life with Books (1628), by Leyden Master, we see books torn and falling apart, clearly, symbols of knowledge and the intellect. Writing in 1600 Barnaby Rich helps flesh out the meaning for us. He saw books as “the great disease of our time, which so fill the world that it is not able to digest the superfluity of worthless stuff which every day is hatched and brought into the world.”[i]

What is this disdain for the world of print all about? The Dutch used the word “transience,” the Buddhists “impermanence” and in the context of P-A we add the word “illusion”—the world of form which has no substantial reality. The Dutch painters were warning against identifying with the material world or expecting happiness or security from the accumulation of either material wealth or fleeting knowledge.

Why do you gaze upon the flowers that stand so beautifully before you?
And yet through the might of the sun pass away all too fast?
Take heed of God’s word alone, that blossoms eternally.
What does the rest of the world become? Nothing!
— Anonymous

Like other 17th century Dutch, this anonymous poet would have had no problem deciphering the meaning of the symbols they saw in the still-life paintings that were hanging in middle-class homes. The Fruit Basket (1632) of Balthasar van der Ast (1593-1657) represents a struggle between good and evil, death and resurrection.

“The bruises on the fruit where it has begun to rot are quite noticeable and flies, butterflies, and dragonflies flutter around them. Insects are frequently associated with the power of evil and are seen as creatures of the devil. Opposed to these are symbols of the Resurrection: lizards, because they shed their skins, are believed to have many lives, the apple refers to Christ’s taking upon himself mankind’s original sin, and grapes are interpreted as the disciples of Christ since Christ referred to himself as vitis vera, the fruit of the vine.”[ii]   

The next time an exhibit of 17th century Dutch artists is being displayed at your local art museum, take a look at the causes of human suffering. The message of vanitas paintings is to beware of the false self and the striving after security, sensation and power, and of identifying too closely with the world of form no matter how beautiful.

Perhaps we Westerners were more awake in the past than we are today. In any case, most of us have yet to apply those insights that today speak to us from 400-year-old paintings.

Vanity, Vanity, Painting Vanity

[i]     Toman, Rolf [ed.]. Baroque Architecture, Sculpture, Painting. China: H. F. Ullmann. 2007, page 470.

[ii]     Ibid.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.

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