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In the arts, vanitas is a type of symbolic work of art especially associated with Northern European still
life painting in Flanders
and the Netherlands in the sixteenth
and century"">seventeenth centuries, though also common in other places
and periods. The word is Latin, meaning "emptiness"
and loosely translated corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly
life and the transient nature of vanity. Ecclesiastes
1:2 from the Bible is
often quoted in conjunction with this term. The Vulgate
(Latin translation of the Bible) renders the verse as Vanitas
vanitatum omnia vanitas. The verse is translated as Vanity of
vanities; all is vanity by the King James
Version of the Bible, and Utterly meaningless! Everything is
meaningless by the International Version"">New International Version of the Bible.
Vanitas themes were common in medieval funerary art, with most surviving examples in sculpture. By the 15th century
these could be extremely morbid and explicit, reflecting an increased
obsession with death and decay also seen in the Ars
Macabre and the overlapping motif of the Memento
mori. From the Renaissance such motifs gradually became more
indirect, and as the still-life genre became popular, found a home
there. Paintings executed in the vanitas style are meant as a reminder
of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty
of death. They also provided a moral justification for many paintings of
Common vanitas symbols include skulls, which are a reminder of the certainty of death;
rotten fruit, which symbolizes decay like ageing;
bubbles, which symbolize the brevity of life and suddenness of death;
smoke, watches, and hourglasses, which symbolize the brevity of life;
and musical instruments, which symbolize brevity and the ephemeral
nature of life. Fruit, flowers and butterflies can be interpreted in the
same way, and a peeled lemon, as well as accompanying seafood was, like
life, attractive to look at, but bitter to taste. There is debate among
art historians as to how much, and how seriously, the vanitas theme is
implied in still lifes without explicit imagery such as a skull. As in
much moralistic genre painting, the
enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a
certain conflict with the moralistic message.
The first movement in composer Robert Schumann's 5 Pieces in a Folk Style, for Cello
and Piano, Op. 102, is entitled Vanitas vanitatum. Mit Humor.
Vanitas vanitatum "Vanity of
vanities" is also the title of an oratorio
written by Italian Baroque composer Carissimi"">Giacomo Carissimi (1604/1605 -1674).
In the video game Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, one of the primary villains is named Vanitas.