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The Cover
October 4, 2000

Vanitas Still Life

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor

JAMA. 2000;284(13):1619. doi:10.1001/jama.284.13.1619

In the visual arts, the term vanitas was first used only in the 17th century. It described a type of still-life painting that was intended to remind the viewer of the transience of created objects, of pleasure, even of life itself. As used to describe a literary theme, however, the term is ancient. It is derived from the famous words of Qoheleth that open the Book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" Moreover, in its literary usage, vanitas refers not so much to the transience or fragility of life as to the futility of seeking what does not last; it is meant to convey a sense of emptiness more than a sense of impermanence.

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