Vanitas - the theme of mortality in art and literature

Vanitas is an artistic and religious theme related to cognition, art and time. It alludes to human interest in death and everything connected with it. Vanitas appeared in the Middle Ages and the Baroque period, when a fascination with the passing and mortality flourished.

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1. Vanitas - what is this theme?

The vanitas motif alludes to man's interest in mortality, which appeared especially in the Middle Ages plagued by wars and plagues, and then returned to the Baroque period. The fascination with death and the passing of time is visible in the literature and painting of these epochs, although such reflections also appear in thinkers of other periods.

The concept of vanitas is related to the keynote of the Book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas", which means: "Vanity over vanities and all is vanity".

The vanitas motif used in art is to make people realize that the joy of life is only a short, passing moment. Vanitas symbols include rotten fruit and skulls, as well as hourglasses and clocks to remind you of death.

The vanitas theme is to a large extent reflecting on the meaning of life. According to the Book of Ecclesiastes, earthly things are not permanent and not eternal. Neither power, wisdom, nor money can give you complete happiness.

Hence, we should not wait for future events in life, but enjoy what is here and now. In your life, one should keep moderation and distance. Man should live in accordance with God's law, because God is the only one who does not pass away and knows all the deeds of people, who will judge righteously in the Last Judgment.

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2. The vanitas theme in the Baroque

The theme of mortality first appeared in the Middle Ages, but it flourished most in Baroque art and literature. At that time, people were looking for a novelty, a different view of the world, and their gaze was directed towards mortality and passing.

The play began to show everything that had so far been considered unworthy of perpetuation and simply ugly. It was related to the situation in the world - wars, plagues, counter-reformations.Such events prompted the creators to consider the mortality and transience of human life. Baroque literature and art allude to this theme with its symbolism.

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3. Examples of the Vanitas theme

Examples of the vanitas motif can be found especially in Baroque literature. The theme of vanities is perfectly visible, for example, in William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", in which a monologue to the skull takes place. The protagonist struggles with questions about the meaning of existence, the fight for human well-being. Among Polish works of baroque literature, the vanitas motif can be observed in authors such as:

  • Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński;
  • Daniel Naborowski;
  • Reverend Józef Baka.
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