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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 3. Death in Sight: Confronting Mortality in Contemporary Art

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43876


This chapter explores the religious and moral message expressed through the medium of vanitas art. In this chapter, I will focus on four kinds of seeing: first, the vanitas artists' exhortation to look at their careful arrangement of objects; second, insights regarding life and death in Qoheleth, the preacher associated with the Book of Ecclesiastes, since it from this biblical source that the phrase 'vanity of vanities, all is vanity' is taken; third, the view of things opened up by the use of symbols, with a focus on symbolic vocabulary common to 17th century and contemporary vanitas art; fourth, an overview of the religious and social contexts which have influenced the beliefs of vanitas artists past and present: the cultural arenas which either accepted or rejected their moral message about human life and the transience of pleasure. Throughout, the line of my argument will be illustrated and grounded by reference to two 17th century painters and one contemporary Scottish artist. In finding comparisons and contrasts in these works, I will show that, while something of the moral and religious message of vanitas art remains across time, content and methodology have changed as religious and ethical sensibilities change, and as the power of media results in the instantaneous dissemination of images. I will conclude by noting the irony that a comparative study of past and present vanitas art reveals, not only the transience of human life, but also the lack of durability of a text in relation to its meaning(s). The work of the vanitas artist, I would argue, belongs in the chain of signifiers which inform and express the relationship between death and human desire at any given time. In a world in which visibility is equated with power, then seeing is believing. The eye of the beholder, however, is always restless.

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