Enduring Vanity

Vanitas PaintingRecently, I shared a few thoughts about the fleeting nature of human beauty, looking at 17th century Vanitas paintings and everyone’s favorite retired body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather than thinking further about Arnold, I’d like to revisit that painting for a moment, looking a bit more closely.

Take a look at the painting. Go ahead and click on it to get a bigger version. I’ll wait.

Remember that the idea of the vanitas painting was to play out the ideas of Ecclesiastes on the vanity of human endeavors. We all die, after all–which is the big, unsubtle message of the skull–and most anything we do is just vanity, just meaningless.

But is that the whole story? I suggested in the previous post that the purpose of the violin in this painting was to evoke the strains of music that are played and then fade away. Look, though, at what lies under the violin and the skull. That appears to be printed music. A song played today will fade away quickly, but a piece of music preserved in musical notation can be preserved for generations. Some of the hymns of the church have been sung for generations. Isn’t that a slight taste of cheating mortality?

Then look over to the left of the painting and the shiny ball. What is that? It looks like a giant pinball, but is, I believe, a convex mirror. A mirror can certainly be a symbol of vanity and the fleeting nature of things, but look at this particular mirror. What do you see? That’s apparently the image of the artist captured in the midst of creating the canvas. Although dead for more than 300 years, Pieter Claesz achieved a tiny bit of immortality by painting himself into that mirror and a bigger one through the enduring value of his paintings.

Besides reminding us of the folly of things that perish, the Vanitas paintings also underscore the value of those things that last. As I write this, I just finished watching the Kansas City Royals play a baseball game. Time well spent? I’d have to chalk that one up in the “meaningless” column, along with the overripe fruit and soon-to-wilt flowers. It is my hope that most of my time is passed on things that will have more enduring value than that.

We have each been allotted a certain number of days on this earth. We can pass them in pursuits that are meaningless or those that are meaningful. More than likely, we’ll have some in each category. But how is your day to be spent today? Which of the Vanitas painting’s messages will your day tell? That’s a question we should ask ourselves each time we roll out of or into bed.

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