December has come! And as usual, it is accompanied by the whole Christmas craze: Eating lots of sweets, rushing out to find the perfect present for all your loved ones and listening to Maria Carey’s All I Want For Christmas unintentionally at least 5 times a day. Most people nowadays connect Christmas to buying stuff and spending money. But maybe, just maybe, you might start to question the sense of all the consumerism. If so, it could simply be the seasonal depression hitting you. Or, just like some artists of the 16th and 17th century, you just regained consciousness about the transience of earthly goods. The Vanitas painting of that time reflect this way of thinking and often display fruits and other foods to stress it. Read on to find out more about this interesting period of time and the symbolism of food in Vanitas!
Some Basics: What does Vanitas mean?
The term vanitas actually is a Latin noun. The English translation is ’emptiness’, ‘futility’ or ‘worthlessness’. And for sure, the meaning of Vanitas already gives quite some hints about the deeper meaning of those paintings:
You can describe Vanitas paintings as a work of art showing the transience of life. They adress the senselessness of pleasure and the inevitability of death. It is loaded with symbolism and all the portrayed contents have a deeper meaning. The probably most popular Vanitas are still lifes. Especially in the Art of the Low Countries, referring to Belgium and Netherlands, it was quite a common genre in the 16th and 17th century.
Historical Background – How To Explain This Worldview
This short introduction already made it pretty clear that the artists of those paintings must have really had some hard feelings against consumerism and the pleasure given by earthly goods. Maybe just like when the gray skies of the winter months make you doubt the sense of life and buying dozens of presents for Christmas. But besides the impermanence of worldly goods, this worldview roots in the historical events of that time.
The first Vanitas paintings popped up in Northern Europe in the late 1520s. They reflected the religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics at that time. Since especially the Lower Countries struggled to find their role within the new religious order. In the 16th century, the Dutch Republic had just gotten rid of their Spanish rulers. These had forced their strict Catholic belief on the Dutch population. In the following, the “newborn” republic turned itself into a protestant state. The Protestant reformation in many European countries like nowadays Belgium and Netherlands brought a big sense of confusion. Questions about self-contemplation and their expression popped up.
Also, the Protestants wanted to draw an explicit line to the art of the Catholic. At that time, there were even some Protestant leaders that demanded the destruction of works of art related to their belief. They based this demand on the idea that to make and use images for Christian worship was contrary to the second of the Ten Commandments which is directed against idolatry.
As a result, many, many paintings, sculptures and other artworks of churches were destroyed. But there were also people from the ranks of the Protestants speaking against it. They stated that images could still be useful for the contemplation of God and holy subjects. As the Protestant approach to contemplation was more individualistic than the one of Catholicism, this helped guide the Dutch artists imagination. Vanitas were the chose way to express the protestant belief system.
Vanitas and the Awareness of Mortality
Besides the vanitas, there was also another artsy phenomenon taking place in Europa at about the same time. Memento Mori, Latin for ‘remember you must die’, was another present theme at that time. Both themes, the Vanitas and Memento Mori promoted one, very clear message: Live your life – although this really is the reduced summary.
To explain it a bit further: The hard truth is, all of us, every human and other being, has to die one day. Considering this, we should give thought to our pursuits and daily practices. This view was also a lot closer to the Protestant belief system than the communal approach of the Catholic church. By chosing to spread this message in paintings, Protestan artists finally found a specific way to express their beliefs. To express themselves, the artists used an endless collection of symbolic imagery, which is not easy to reveal at first sight.
Looking at Vanitas, the tidy-minded among us might even shiver. They are often disorderly and the placement of the objects seems random and without sense. The intention behind that is to stress the instability of the world and the fleetingness and imperfection of worldly things in comparison with god.
You see, those paintings definitely are no light fare and to understand them, you absolutely need to know some facts in advance. But to go back to the topic introduced. In these kinds of painting there were often foods like fruits and veggies displayed. As already mentioned, all the objects had explicit meanings:
Food in paintings – What do they actually mean?
Typical symbols in Vanitas are skulls, bubbles, smoke, watches and hourglasses. These symbols represent the certainty and suddenness of death, as well as the brevity and ephemeral nature of life. And, of course, there is food in Vanitas.
Many paintings also display (rotten) fruit, flowers or even cheese. The different kinds of food in Vanitas paintings have a particular meaning. To give you some examples:
The apple serves as a symbol of salvation of the original sin of the Fall of Men. Citrons, often peeled, were compared to life itself: attractive to look at but bitter to taste. In many Vanitas there were also rotten fruits displayed, which stand for the transience of life itself.
So, what to take along from that little excursion to the fascinating universe of art history? Maybe simply the certainty, that the feeling of senselessness and transience of worldly goods for sure is no modern phenomena. So, the next time you get sick of the Western consumerism, it might help, to look at some Vanitas paintings, their displayed food and remember the truly important things in life. For us, one of them definitely is apple pie. If you want to find out more about the symbolism of the forbidden fruit and how to make the best apple pie, check out this blog post.