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.
Notice the skull, bubbles, flowers and art.
If you look closely at the painting above, you can read vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas on a piece of paper.
Additional reading: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/protestant.htm
For more on the Reformation and Reformation art, see Francis Schaeffer’s video:
Steven R. Cook, M. Div.