Sunday, July 24, 2016

This Very Night

Jesus tells a parable in the Gospel reading for Proper 13C/Ordinary 18C. The story is set up by a man who wants to make sure he gets his piece of the family financial pie (Luke 12:13-21). Jesus' words are a sobering reminder that it isn't all about money.

Those kinds of reminders are the same sort included by Dutch painters in their 17th-century still life compositions. When looking at these paintings, the viewer is often carried away by the beauty of flowers or the bounty of food that is displayed. Sometimes it is the beautiful silver and glassware depicted that captivates the viewer.

These paintings are more than they seem, however. Often the bouquets of flowers would never (at that time) have been found together in nature because late winter/spring flowers are mixed in with summer and even autumn blooms. That isn't at all unusual for us but in 17th-century Holland such multi-seasonal bouquets were almost impossible. Flowers bloomed when they bloomed and were enjoyed  in season but rarely found out of season, except in pictures. Multi-seasonal bouquets were a reminder of the passing of time.

Still life compositions often showed food and tableware in what might seem to be a meal interrupted. Glassware is often overturned, fruit is being peeled and candles are snuffed out but still smoking. These settings, too, are a reminder of the passing of time. Fruit and food that is left out on the table is already starting to decay, often an insect will be shown on the food as further reminder of the decaying of earthly things.

All of these are called vanitas* paintings as a reminder of the fleeting nature of life. Some of the paintings include in their arrangements - pointedly include - a skull. These types of vanitas paintings are called memento mori. The Latin phrase translated "remember you must die" is the phrase that was whispered in the ear of Roman generals as they processed through the streets of Rome after various victories. The reminder was intended to help them resist believing their own press.

Pieter Claesz. Vanitas Still Life. 1630. The Hague: Mauritshuis. 
https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/vanitas-still-life-943/#
The painting above, by Pieter Claesz, uses the snuffed out flame, an overturned glass and a watch in addition to the skull to remind the viewer of how fleeting life is. Though there is no gold in the picture, there are other things in which people put their trust every bit as much as the rich man in Jesus' story put his trust in his wealth. He was soon to learn a lesson about what was truly lasting.

*This name is a nod to Ecclesiastes 1:1: Vanity of vanities...all is vanity!






This week on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page...consider how the idea of the skull and the memento mori might influence another painting of a person in the Bible. Click on the FB link below to see the full picture.

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