I recently completed a class called “The Sacred and the Profane”, taught by photographer Linda Connor at at San Francisco Art Institute. A significant portion of the class was devoted to the concept of Vanitas. Vanitas is a genre of art than juxtaposes beauty with symbols of decay. It seeks to remind one of one’s own mortality; that the pleasures of the day are fleeting. While especially associated with still life painting in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is common in many places and remains an important motif to this day. Below is a classic painting in the Vanitas style by Harmen Steenwijck, circa 1640.
Earlier, I had created a full-scale photographic replica of the large, circular, stained glass “Dove Window” in the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church. The replica replaced the actual window while it was removed for restoration. This inspired the class to convert one of the large, semicircular windows in the classroom to a “Vanitas Window”!
For the next class, each student brought in items typically found in a vanitas still life: skulls, insects, candles, fruits, flowers, mirrors, a dead chicken and more. These were arranged on a table. Anticipating the large-scale of the final window, I photographed the arrangement as a multi-row panorama which I stitched together using PTgui.
Some additional clean-up and adjustments were performed in Photoshop. Also the background drapes were created and composeded into the image in Photoshop. The image was then sliced to create four separate files corresponding to the four rows of panes in the actual window. (Although the Photoshop slice tool was designed for creating web pages, it has other uses as well.) Finally, each slice was scaled to match the size of the actual window. Each of the files were then printed on 24″-wide EPSON DisplayTrans Backlight Film Plus.
Back in the classroom, one of the other students, Jacob Willson, trimmed the prints to fit the actual window panes. Each trimmed print was attached to the corresponding window pane with bits of double stick tape, and any gaps between the prints and the window’s muntins were filled with black tape.
And the end result, as seen from the corner of Chestnut and Jones in San Francisco:
Why were the items in the still life chosen? Here is the key:
- Skeleton – universal symbol of human death
- Vase of flowers – traditional vanitas symbol of fleetingness of beauty
- Over-turned wine glass – interrupted life or debauchery cut short
- Spilled wine – accident, waste or spilled blood
- Insects, Lizards, or Worms near flowers or fruit – rot, death
- Hour glass, half filled – the passing of life
- Burned-down candle – a life soon to be stuffed out
- Woman’s arm with apple and snake tattoos – temptation; Eve and the fall from grace, bringing death into the world
- Apple – Forbidden fruit
- Snakes – Garden of Eden. Close to Earth = Far from God
- Mirrored globe – Makes viewers witness to their own mortality
- Tintype of dead people – Photographs preserve the moment, not the sitter
- Fruits and vegetables – Fleeting youth; they ripen and then rot. Look for bugs.
- African egg basket made from dried bull scrotum – the male homlog of the Labia majora
- Pyramids and Obelisks– Egyptian culture’s attempt at immortality
- Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday’s song: “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
- Crocodile skull with Pomegranate – Skull = death. Pomegranate and its seeds are connected with the Underworld. Pomegranates, not Apples, may be the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden.
- Dead Chicken – Vanitas Still-lives often feature dead animals as food or bounty
- Mirror – Typically related to the vanity of women; beauty is fleeting
- Camera – Mirror that can fix time, but not the ravages of age and fate.
- Raccoon penis bone
- Bible / Old book
- Vase with dirty water – The pollution of the womb, Original Sin
- Smiling skull – Death victorious
- Bat from hell
- Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
- Oyster shell / Labia
- Tibetan skull-cap
- Ethiopian amulet scroll for protection
- Wasp nest – Disturb and you will wish you were dead
- Luxurious fabric won’t save you
- Eskimo jawbone sled
- Spiral fossil