The Latin phrase sic transit gloria mundi means ‘thus passes the glory of the world’. Watts shortened it because his subject ‘was not so much the passing of the glory of the world but rather the end of all human existence’.
The foreground objects symbolise the futility of material wealth. The ermine, used on robes of state, denotes power; the lute and book refer to the Arts; the laurel crown and goblet to fame and luxury; the armour and weaponry to military victory. The inscription reads ‘What I spent, I had, What I saved, I lost, What I gave, I have’.