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.
If you look closely at the painting above, you can read vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas on a piece of paper.
The Raising of the Cross was painted by Rembrandt sometime around A.D. 1633. In the painting the artist portrayed himself as one among many who placed Christ on the cross to bear the sin of all mankind. You can see Rembrandt in the center of the painting wearing his painter’s hat. Rembrandt is telling everyone that it was his sin that sent Christ to the cross, and that it was his hands that lifted Him up to die. There is a richness of Christian theology in the painting.
I understand what Rembrandt is communicating in the picture. It speaks for itself. More so, I personally identify with the artist, because I see my hands raising the cross of Christ. I too am guilty of the sin that put Him there to die in my place. The cross of Christ is essential to the gospel message of Christianity (1 Cor. 1:17-18; 15:3-4), and every Christian who believes in Jesus as Savior—at some point in his learning—must see himself at the cross, for Scripture declares, “we died with Him” (2 Tim. 2:11; cf. Col. 2:20).
When we think about Jesus, we know from Scripture that He is simultaneously the eternal Son of God and true humanity. At a point in time, the eternal Son of God took upon Himself sinless humanity and walked among men (John 1:1, 14, 18). In theology, this is called the doctrine of the hypostatic union. Though He is fully God, we must always keep His perfect humanity in our thinking as well. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, just hours before the crucifixion, it was the humanity of Christ that struggled to face the cross. In the Garden, Jesus “fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will’” (Matt. 26:39). Jesus went to the cross as His Father willed. When we think about the cross, we realize that it was not Jesus’ deity that died for our sins, but His humanity, as Peter tells us, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24). Peter’s reference to “His body” speaks of the humanity of Jesus.
Concerning the death of Christ on the cross, The Bible reveals it was simultaneously an act of God as well as sinful men. When delivering his sermon about the crucifixion of Jesus in Acts chapter 2, Peter declared, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). In one verse, Peter captures the coalescence of divine and human wills that participated in putting Christ on the cross. On the divine side, Jesus was “delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God”, and on the human side, He was “nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men [who] put Him to death.” Jesus was not a helpless victim, torn between the will of God and sinful men, but a willing sacrifice who chose to lay down His life for the salvation of others. The prophet Isaiah declares:
But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. (Isa. 53:10-11)
The language is plain, “the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering” (Isa. 53:10a). God punishes sin as His righteousness requires, and saves the sinner as His love desires. It is simultaneously true that God sent and Christ went. Christ was willing to be put to death in our place, for the Scripture declares “Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus said “I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:15), and “no one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative” (John 10:18). Other passages in Scripture clearly reveal that Christ went to the cross willingly and laid down His life for our benefit (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:25; Heb. 7:27; 9:14). Jesus was punished in our place so that we might have forgiveness of sins and the gifts of eternal life and righteousness (John 3:16; 10:27-28; Eph. 1:7; 2:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21; Philip. 3:9; 1 Pet. 3:18).
We must not see Christ dying at a distant time or place. Like Rembrandt, we must see ourselves at the place where Christ died. We should see our hands driving the nails and lifting the cross. We must see Jesus bearing all our sin, and paying the penalty of the Father’s wrath that rightfully belongs to us. Afterward, we must see ourselves risen with Him into newness of life. In May, 2006, while taking a seminary class on the Atonement with Dr. Paige Patterson, I wrote a poem and tried to capture in words what Rembrandt captured in his painting.
I and the Father led Christ to the cross, Together we placed Him there; I pushed Him forward, no care for the cost, His Father’s wrath to bear. Christ in the middle not wanting to die, Knelt in the garden and prayed; Great tears of blood the Savior did cry, Yet His Father He humbly obeyed.
So He carried His cross down a dusty trail, No words on His lips were found; No cry was uttered as I drove the nails, His arms to the cross were bound. I lifted my Savior with arms spread wide, He hung between heaven and earth; I raised my spear and pierced His side, What flowed was of infinite worth.
Like a Lamb to the altar Christ did go, A sacrifice without blemish or spot; A knife was raised, and life did flow, In a basin the blood was caught. Past the incense table and the dark black veil, To that holy of holy places; The blood of Christ was made to avail, And all my sins it erases.
Now this Lamb on a cross was a demonstration Of the Father’s love for me; For the Savior’s death brought satisfaction, Redeemed, and set me free. Now I come to the Savior by faith alone, Not trusting in works at all; Jesus my substitute for sin did atone, Salvation in answer to His call.