Art Term

Vanitas

A still life artwork which includes various symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures

Edward Collier, ‘Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’’ 1696
Edward Collier
Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ 1696
Tate

The term originally comes from the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’

Vanitas are closely related to memento mori still lifes which are artworks that remind the viewer of the shortnes and fragility of life (memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’) and include symbols such as skulls and extinguished candles. However vanitas still-lifes also include other symbols such as musical instruments, wine and books to remind us explicitly of the vanity (in the sense of worthlessness) of worldly pleasures and goods.

Related terms and concepts

Art Term

Memento mori

A memento mori is an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility ...

Art Term

Still life

One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting ...

Selected artworks in the collection