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

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  • Edward Collier, 'Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes'' 1696
    Edward Collier
    Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696
    Oil on canvas
  • Pablo Picasso, 'Black Jug and Skull' 1946
    Pablo Picasso
    Black Jug and Skull 1946
    Lithograph on paper
    image: 322 x 440 mm
    Bequeathed by Elly Kahnweiler 1991 to form part of the gift of Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler, accessioned 1994© Succession Picasso/DACS 2002

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.