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Vanitas with Skull (Hendrick Andriessen, ca, 1600-1650, oil on panel)

Vanitas with Skull (Hendrick Andriessen, ca, 1600-1650, oil on panel)

Here is a simple but extremely lovely small still life painting by Hendrick Andriessen, a Flemish Baroque painter who specialized in “vanitas” paintings.  The entire composition is designed to remind the viewer how transient human life is.  The fragile pipe stems are easily broken (and tobacco’s pleasure is brief and tainted).  Each lovely cut flower withers away, The quivering flame is blown out…and nothing represents the dreadful onrushing nature of death like a human skull.  At the apex of the composition is a fragile bubble ready to burst.

As summer ends, this composition seems fitting in many ways (for example it was my birthday this past weekend).  Additionally, the bubble has symbolic significance in other realms than art.  We all knew the China bubble had to pop…..

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas)

Monastery Graveyard in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1819, oil on canvas)

Here is a painting appropriate for the grim depths of winter. This is Klosterfriedhof im Schnee (Monastery Graveyard in the Snow) painted by the melancholy master of German romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich (whose foreboding works keep appearing on this blog). The melodramatic work highlights the transitory nature of all things. All that remains of a once grand Gothic abbey is the soaring arch of the nave which hovers ghostlike in the center of the composition. Around the ruins are vast oaks reaching out broken limbs toward the church like desperate spectral worshipers. Not only are the trees ancient, gnarled, and denuded by winter, but one also senses that they are not healthy oaks (a tree surgeon would probably shake his head sadly at their prospects). The abbey grounds have been transformed into a cemetery and the monks trudge through the necropolis like tiny insects dwarfed by the desolate trees, the headstones, and the abandoned church. Monasticism was on its way out in Germany when Friedrich painted this, and it is deliberately anachronistic. The monks too may be ghosts.

There is a final meta-layer to this vanitas painting. As you have noticed, the photograph of the work is black and white. This is because it is an old photograph which was taken before the painting itself was destroyed in an American air raid on Berlin during the chaos of 1945.  The lack of color suits both the composition and the theme: one imagines that Friedrich might appreciate the irony, if he were not himself gone, like everything in this painting and the painting itself.

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