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.
Southgate MT. Vanitas Still Life. JAMA. 2000;284(13):1619. doi:10.1001/jama.284.13.1619
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