The earliest vanitas paintings bore heavy Biblical symbolism, meant to revile the pleasures and distractions of the physical world, and underscore mortality and the tender peril of one’s everlasting soul, etc. They accomplished this by laying crumbling skulls and wilting flowers atop lush spreads of food, drink, treasures, musical instruments, and other delights. Nothing reminds one’s wealthy patrons how disgusting and worthless all their riches are like a sumptuous, glistening, nigh photo-realistic oil painting of said riches to hang in the dining hall. Much modesty and virtue were installed this way, no doubt.
Fortunately, we don’t need a taste for Calvinist doctrine to appreciate the sombre, morbid beauty of the vanitas genre, or to keep finding symbolic richness in memento mori imagery. Today, we’re gonna co-opt and re-interpret a bunch of classic vanitas symbols to suit our own, hipster-occultist ends in this, the dystopian pre-apocalyptic present.
For richer and wiser living while vulnerable and impermanent.
1. Skull: What the body has to say of life and death.
2. Book: A message from human history and philosophy. Wisdom to remember or a topic to research.
3. Flower: A dose of inspiration from the natural world.
4. Feather: Something to aspire to with humility and curiosity, even if it can’t be fully attained.
5. Hourglass: Something to hurry up and get on with before the moment passes.
6. Goblet: Something to fill your cup with. Something to imbibe.
7. Violin: An aesthetic outlet for one’s passion or pathos.
8. Coin: Empty riches of inflated value, not to get lost in chasing.
9. Pearl: A purity metric to deprogram or abandon. An unhealthy standard of perfection to stop holding yourself to because it’s wasting your time and peace.
10. Bubble: An uncatchable, fleeting delight to let pass with appreciation.
11. Candle: A light in the darkness. A focal point for consolation and healing.
This spread is designed to celebrate the fleeting beauties of this world, in full recognition that you can’t hang onto them. It’s about finding ways to constructively indulge passions, interests, and aesthetic sensibilities while centering depth and checking the impulse to get too lost in shallow concerns. It’s for living extra, knowing that the grave comes for us all.
Note that when I say richer and wiser living, I don’t necessarily mean richer in coin and status. We can be rich in many things. What counts the most? I don’t know about you all, but I don’t count the kind of accumulation that takes without giving back, shafts one’s neighbors, and trashes the planet as abundance or worth. Let’s get rich and wise in what matters!