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Vanitas: A Brief History of a Niche Art Movement

This year, we have been on a journey through the book of Ecclesiastes, exploring what life looks like ‘under the sun’, without God. In this blog post, artist Sally Conwell explains the history of the Vanitas art movement which inspired her Vanitas sermon series artwork.

‘Vanitas’ was a fairly niche art movement that began in the early 17th century, later spreading across greater Northern Europe and seeping even further into much of the new, contemporary art we see today (eg Damien Hirst).

Vanitas was essentially pioneered by Christian artists—’Vanitas’ was taken directly from Ecclesiastes famous refrain ‘Vanity of vanities.’ Vanitas artists drew a number of their themes from their faith and more specifically the themes we find in the book of Ecclesiastes.

A typical Vanitas painting is a still life composition with carefully chosen objects. In each painting you’re likely to see objects related to three different subjects:

1. The ‘arts and sciences’, or the general pursuit of knowledge: musical scores, books, tools, pens and paper.

2. Objects of wealth and excess: wine, rich fabrics and textures, jewels, things that are wildly shiny and rich in colour.

3. Objects symbolising time and death: hourglasses, flowers, wilting plants, tethered or broken objects and fabrics, bones and skulls.

Over the last few years you may have noticed that skulls and similar imagery have become ‘on trend.’ Have a stroll down Newtown and see for yourself. We see much of the same imagery that was once used in the Vanitas genre in tattoo studios, designer wear and contemporary art. Living in a culture where we are entirely over-saturated with imagery, the impact of these particular Vanitas images are of little consequence to us. We see them every day.

But these same images were incredibly outrageous to their original 17th century audiences. These 17th century artists were pretty rebellious—painting these works was considered wild! Perhaps what challenges me most is that they weren’t afraid to look at some of the heavier realities of our faith. These paintings were specifically designed to be both challenging and confronting to their audiences, forcing people to consider deep questions like, ‘What is the meaning and purpose of your life?’

These artists confronted their audiences with the realities of death—that time is both passing and ethereal. They challenged audiences to consider the transient nature of human life and the seemingly meaninglessness of our lives built on a foundation of wealth, knowledge and leisure alone.

The Vanitas artists takes their art even further by demonstrating the transient, and illusory nature of life through their intentional choice of painting techniques. They painted objects that are of an illusion, while the physical painting themselves are also… illusions! It is all trickery to the eye. Each Vanitas painting is typically built up with very fine, thin layers of transparent oil paint, no doubt using a number of chemicals. This technique ensures that the canvas will absorb as much light as possible, making the entire painting look as though it’s saturated in a layer of darkness. Again, despite the richness of some of the colours that you ’think’ you see, it’s only when you see one of these paintings up close that you realise very little paint has actually been used. The grains of the canvas can often still be seen.

Despite being very somber and dark paintings, Vanitas artists weren’t afraid of painting the heavier realities of faith, they weren’t afraid of asking themselves or others the big questions. And that’s because their hope and purpose was not built upon a foundation of knowledge, leisure or wealth alone, but rather built upon their faith in our unchanging God. They were able to paint images symbolic of death without fear because our God is victorious over it and our faith in Jesus means that we are too.

About the Artist
First exhibiting at the age of 18, Sally Conwell had completed two artist residencies in France before the age of 22, completed studies in Fine Arts (COFA/UNSW) and launched a bizarre range of greeting cards that make very little sense, under the name Sit Still Sally. She can’t actually sit still, and each work seems to differ greatly from the last.

Her work explores the transient nature of man; with all the oddities of life and pockets of joy found inbetween. Sally describes her works as a ‘progressive working out of ideas’ found in her readings and love for ontology, philosophy, poetry and other vague, inconclusive facts & fictions—the writings of Emmanual Levinas (The Face Theory), Gerard Hopkins (Inscape Theory), Anais Nin, Emily Dickinson, J.R.R Tolkien, and C.S Lewis have been particularly influential.

Today, Sally works from and runs ‘Deadfern Studios’ in Sydney’s inner west.