So what is a vanitas? It is a genre of the still life painting tradition. The traditional vanitas were painted in the 17th century usually by Dutch and Flemish still life painters, and often contain a hidden allegory. The Latin word Vanitas means 'emptiness', 'unreality' or 'superficiality'; and is not about vanity in the sense of being vain but of the evanescence or emptiness of earthly possessions. These paintings were designed to make the observer contemplate the longevity of life, the frailty of man and the vanity of all worldly things. They were often moralising and filled with elaborate symbolism.
The objects used are reflective of the transcience of the things of this world and the inevitability of death (the 'vanitas' theme) for us all; and by extension often contemplative of the Christian passion and resurrection of Jesus. A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitably of death and the transcience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent.
Vanitas - Frans Hals (1628)
Collage for The Allegory of the Boy Artist visual narrative
The memento mori is the skull, reminding us we must due.
Here is a list of some of the more frequent objects and their meanings:
An hour-glass, clock or candle: all allude to the passing of time;
An overturned vessel (cup, pitcher or bowl): alludes to the literal meaning of vanitas - emptiness.
A crown, sceptre, jewels, purse or coins: alludes for the power and possessions of this world (represented by a terrestrial globe) that death takes away
A sword or other weapon: reminds us that arms are no protection against death.
Flowers, especially with drops of dew: symbols of short-livedness and hence of decay.
Glass of wine or pitcher and a loaf of bread: the eucharistic elements.
A vase of flowers: points the contrast between life on earth and in the hereafter.
Ivy, being evergreen: signifies death by the resurrection
Pelican or phoenix: used as Christian references often painted on vessels.
Crucifix or rosary: symbols of Catholicism.
A bird: symbol of the human soul, a meaning familiar in antiquity; and extended to other winged creatures such as the butterfly.
Apple, pomegranate, black and white grapes, nut and other fruit: commonly used as traditional Christian symbols.
A bird's egg (especially with the shell broken): implies resurrection and life.
Exotic shells: were a symbol of wealth, as only a rich collector would own such a rare object from a distant land.
Books: celebrated human learning.
Musical instruments: celebrated the pleasures of the senses.
Purple silk cloth: was doubly symbolic - silk was the finest material, while purple was the most regal colour.
Arms and armour: represented both military power and superb craftsmanship, beautiful and deadly at the same time.
Storage jars, glasses and carafes: contained water, wine or oil; they were symbolical elements that held the products that sustained life.
Chronometer: marked the length and passing of life.
Extinguished oil lamp or candle: also marked the length and passing of life.
Mirrors, bones, burning candles, soap bubbles, decaying flowers, flickering candles, smoke, pipes, fruit, vegetables, plants, red wine, bread, tattered books, maps, jewellery, broken pots and crockery, insects, animals, time pieces, the hour glass, sun dials, cards, dice and other games of chance.