Friday, August 20, 2010

Vanitas: Not Living in the Moment

In thinking about the vanitas genre of art, it occurs to me that that it’s all about not living in the moment.

Most of us have never been exposed to truly horrible death … unlike people who lived (and died) during the 14th century, when the Great Plague (aka the Black Death, the Great Mortality) killed roughly half the world’s population.
It’s estimated that in Mediterranean Europe the plague wiped out 75-80% of the population in just four years. After that, devastating plague epidemics popped up somewhere in virtually every generation until it made its final appearance in Europe in the 19th century.

Lack of sanitation, marauding armies, high infant mortality, famine, primitive (often barbaric) medical treatments, no FDA inspections of food, no OSHA regulation at the job site … it’s almost impossible for most of us, today, to understand the constant presence of death that was the reality of life for everyone until very recent times.

Not surprisingly, given the uncertainty of daily survival, one of the most widely circulated books printed with movable type before 1500 was a self-help book called Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying). Written within the context of the horrors of the Black Death, it provided protocols and procedures for how to "die well" according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages.

Prior to the Great Plague, the rituals and consolations of the death bed were generally attended to by a clergyman. But the priesthood had been especially hard hit by the epidemic, and it would take generations to rebuild. Ars moriendi was an innovative response by the Church to provide the guidance of a "virtual priest" to those who sought to die with propriety.

Gradually, the idea of preparing for one's own death became common practice, as a daily meditation, during bad times -- and good. We know, for example, that the 17th century sculptor, Gian-Lorenzo Bernini, was a devout practitioner of the art of dying well.

(Click to listen to a podcast on The Art of Dying … then click on the audio symbol in left-hand column).

As always, art reflected the times, and a type of sacred art - the memento mori – came into being, to emphasize the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures and achievements, and to focus meditation on the prospect of the afterlife. "Memento mori" is a Latin phrase which translates as "Remember your mortality" or "Remember you will die."

A subset of Memento mori, a vanitas painting is a still-life containing symbols of death, meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the vanity of ambition, and the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasures. In reminding the viewer of inevitable death, a vanitas painting serves as a veiled exhortation to repent.

Common vanitas symbols include human skulls, over-ripe fruit and decaying flowers, smoke, time-pieces, bubbles, musical instruments, and jewelry, gold and other riches.

All this is not to say, however, that we can’t just “be in the moment” and enjoy a so-called vanitas picture for its inherent beauty. I suspect that many artists took secret pleasure in the fact that the viewing experience evoked by a sensuous vanitas still life is in direct conflict with the moralistic message!