Vanitas Art

      Vanitas art originated in the 16th and 17th century in Europe in the Netherlands, France and Flanders (modern day Belgium).  The word vanitas is Latin and means “futility” or “meaninglessness” and derives from the Vulgate translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2, vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas (Vulgate).  There Solomon wrote, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2).  Ecclesiastes teaches that life is uncertain, death is inevitable, and the pursuit of pleasure offers no real or lasting meaning.  Likewise, this genre of art communicates the transient nature of material things, the certainty of death, and the insignificance of earthly pleasure and human glory.  The moral message is that we should contemplate the effervescence of life and consider things eternal rather than temporal.  The symbols in the art often include a skull (death), bubbles (fragility and brevity), smoke (illusion of substance), an hourglass or watch (passing of time), fruit and flowers (things that quickly decay), instruments and music sheets (indulgent pursuit of pleasure), open books (pursuit of earthly knowledge), and dice (a picture of fortune).  See some of the symbols in the art below. 

Bavid Bailly Vanitas ca. 1651

David Bailly Vanitas ca. 1651


Notice the skull, bubbles, flowers and art.

Edwaert Collier Vanitas Still Life - ca. 1642–1708

Edwaert Collier Vanitas Still Life – ca. 1642–1708


If you look closely at the painting above, you can read vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas on a piece of paper.

Pieter Claesz - Vanitas Still Life ca.1628

Pieter Claesz – Vanitas Still Life ca.1628

Additional reading:

For more on the Reformation and Reformation art, see Francis Schaeffer’s video:

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

About Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Steven is a Christian educator. His webpages communicate evangelical Christian doctrines and topics. Steven earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree in 2017 from Tyndale Theological Seminary. His articles are theological, devotional, and promote a biblical worldview. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than three hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven worked in jail ministry for over twelve years, taught in Bible churches, and currently leads a Bible study each week at his home in Arlington, Texas.
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1 Response to Vanitas Art

  1. Pingback: Only What’s Done for Christ Will Last | Thinking on Scripture

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