What is Vanitas

Vanitas by Franciscus Gysbrecht

… one generation dies,
Another in its place shall rise;
That, sinking soon into the grave,
Others succeed, like wave on wave.

Excerpt from ‘Vanitas Vanitatum,
Omnia Vanitas’ by Anne Bronte – (1845)

Vanitas (I had never heard of this word before, we started looking at photography in this second year. What does it mean?)


Vanitas (pl. vanitases)
painting – A type of still life painting, symbolic of mortality, characteristic of Dutch painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Vanitas (Latin)
Origin & history
vanus + -itas

vānitas (genitive vānitātis); (fem.)
emptiness, nothingness
falsity, falsehood, deception, untruth, untrustworthiness, fickleness
vanity, vainglory.

1. empty, vacant, void
2. unsubstantial
3. figuratively – groundless, baseless, meaningless
4. ostentatious, boastful
5. deceptive, untrustworthy

Related words & phrases
vānitās, vānum, vanus, vana.

“vanitas” in WordSense.eu Online Dictionary

So Vanitas is a form of still life painting, that contains a set of symbolic items of morality and the unavoidable truth that is death as well as the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures, it recommends the person looking at the art work to consider morality and repent.

Vanitas came to fruition from images of skulls and objects that represent the symbolism of death and transience and it gained its own independent status by 1550. Only a small number of vanitas paintings contain figures, the vast majority are solely still life paintings, accommodate a number of standard elements such as:

books, maps and musical instruments (these are symbols of the Arts and Sciences)
purses, jewellery, gold objects (these are symbols of Wealth and Power)
goblets, pipes, and playing cards (these are symbols of Earthly Pleasures)
skulls, clocks, burning candles, soap bubbles, and flowers (these are symbols of Death or Transience)
ears of corn, sprigs of ivy, laurel (these are symbols of Resurrection and Eternal Life)

Some of the greatest still-life painters, included:
David Bailly, Jan Davidsz de Heem, Willem Claesz Heda, Pieter Potter, and Harmen and Pieter van Steenwyck.

These artists were considered masters of the vanitas still life, the influence of the genre can also be seen in the iconography and technique of other contemporary artists such as Rembrandt.

The way of life during the Reformation

The differences in lifestyle between the rich and the common people were significant especially when it came to eating and in the 16th century rich people still ate a variety of food with a great deal of meat. However the poor usually ate boring food. In the morning they would have had bread and cheese and onions. They had only one cooked meal a day. They would mix grain with water and added some vegetables and (if they could afford it) strips of meat.

Most of the food in the 16th century was either boiled or cooked over open fires, such as meat. Soups and broths would have been cooked in a pot over the open fire and bread pastries were cooked in brick ovens. Breakfast for the poor would have been of coarse bread made from Rye or Barley with cheese and onions, other foods included Fish, Vegetables (rarely).

As for the rich, there was probably a selection of cold or cooked meats such as beef, lamb,pork, etc., Salmon, Shellfish, Fruits, Vegetables (rarely), Eels, bread and butter and cakes, served with tea or coffee and, later in the period, chocolate. The Tudors were also very fond of sweet foods (only if they could afford it). However in the 16th century sugar was a very expensive commodity so most people used honey to sweeten their food.

The 16th century was also infamous because of the disease that were around at the time when people had to contend with the likes of “The Great Plague” or “Bubonic Plague” this was the main disease at that this time, and it was easily spread as there was no sanitation, and open drains flowed straight out into the streets were the cobbles would be covered with rubbish and human and animal excrement. Other common disease at this time were: Smallpox, Measles, Malaria, Chicken pox, Typhus, Scarlet fever but the most feared was the Plague.

In England they also suffered the Plague (The Bubonic Plague(1665)) as well as the Fire of London (1666) and of course last but not least the English Civil War of (1642-1649) which ended with the arrest and execution of King Charles I, and the abolishment of the monarchy which in turn led to the establishment of the supremacy of Parliament over the King.

Fashion in the 16th century

16th and 17th century Entertainment and Literature

Marazzoli – Ogni nostro piacer (Tragicomedia – Rome 1650 – Vanitas Vanitatum)
Lamentarium (Lamentarium Traiter – Atalante)

16th and 17th century Technology

The following items were invented between 1500 and 1698.

Wheel-lock musket, The first flush toilets, horizontal water wheel, Pocket watch, etching, graphite pencil, Bottled beer, Mercator map projection, knitting machine called the stocking frame, compound microscope, water thermometer, first refracting telescope, human-powered submarine, slide rule, method for blood transfusion, steam turbine, micrometer, adding machine, barometer, air pump, pendulum clock, cuckoo clocks, reflecting telescope, champagne, calculating machine, universal joint, pressure cooker, steam pump.

Below is a link to a 1973 video produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation, part of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

It is 23 minutes 28 seconds in length and looks at the reformation and its leader Martin Luther in Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is narrated by James Mason. The Reformation. It considers the complaints against the Roman Catholic Church and the repercussions of the chain reaction of events that followed and left an unforgettable stain on both the Church and Politics.


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