A bouquet of flowers, formed of roses, tulips, pinks and a fine lilium candium, is placed in a glass vase on a table behind a nautilus, some apricots, some cherries and some peaches. To the left, a crucifix stands upon a skull. On the edge of the table lie a pocket watch, an ink stand, a pen and a sheet of paper on which are written these lines:
Mer naer d'Alderschoonste Blom
daer en siet men naer'om.
They refer to the crucifix and are accompanied by the signature of 'Jan de Heem,' which is repeated in another corner of the picture together with that of the artist's collaborator, 'N. van Veerendael.'
The Vanitas (Vanity), a still-life which, by means of selected objects usually grouped about a skull, draws attention to the brevity of life, was known in Antiquity, when it had an epicurean significance: at meals, at the moment when satiety began to make itself felt, a small coffin was brought round to remind the guests that they had not much time to enjoy life and so to restore their appetite. Certain mosaics at Pompeii show skeletons and skulls, and there is even a real Vanitas in which a skull on top of
fortune and a mason's rule is accompanied by the words mors omnia aequat. The Vanitas reappeared later, in the fifteenth century, with a Christian significance — that is to say, designed to lead the spectator to penitence, not to pleasure, by calling upon him to meditate on his end. The representation, so dear to the humanists of the sixteenth century, of St Jerome meditating in his cell beside a skull and other objects, may have played a part in the elaboration of this type of painting, which was destined to have a great success in the seventeenth century. The religious revival born of the Counter-Reformation then made meditation on death a spiritual exercise, so much so that the skull in a monk's cell or in a priest's room was as much a pious object as the rosary. This kind of meditation was equally familiar to the Protestants, and so the painting of the Vanitas was as common in the parts of Europe dominated by the Reformed religion as in the Catholic countries.
The seventeenth-century Vanitas was a still-life composed of essentially transient living organisms, fruit, flowers, butterflies and other insects —with the hour glass, clock or watch to indicate the flight of time; sometimes books and scientific instruments signified the vanity of human knowledge, which ends in the tomb.
The two water-colours by Hofnagel, dated 1591, in the Lille Museum, which show flowers, butterflies, caterpillars, other insects and snails in the manner of the grotteschi, grouped in one of them about a skull and an hour glass, in the other about a cherub and an hour glass, and with quotations from Bible added, are certainly the first complete still-lifes ; we might have reproduced one of them here, had not the flowers in them almost: entirely faded — an example of ephemerality not foreseen by the painter! The spread of the Vanitas was encouraged by the taste for moralising saws and emblems, which became a mania at the end of the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth. It looks as if what might be called the 'classic' type of Vanitas still-life was formed at Leyden under the influence of the philosophical circle at the University there: it is worth noting that the six examples painted by Jan Davidsz de Heem bear dates from 162.5 to 1629 and so belong precisely to his Leyden period. It was in fact only in passing that Jan Davidsz de Heem treated the Vanitas theme, and our reason for choosing one of his pictures to represent the genre is that in it the flower plays the principal part and the skull, whose apparition is rather disagreeable in such a book as this, hides discreetly away in the shade.