The Symbolism of Vanitas Objects
The objects in this painting have been chosen carefully to communicate the 'Vanitas' message which is summarized in the Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Each object in the picture has a different symbolic meaning that contributes to the overall message:
The skull, which is the focal point of the work, is the universal symbol of death. The chronometer (the timepiece that resembles a pocket watch) and the gold oil lamp which has just been extinguished, mark the length and passing of life.
The shell (Turbinidae), which is a highly polished specimen usually found in south east Asia, is a symbol of wealth, as only a rich collector would own such a rare object from a distant land. Shells are also traditionally used in art as symbols of birth and fertility.
Books and Musical Instruments
The books represent the range of human knowledge, while the musical instruments suggest the pleasures of the senses. Both are seen as luxuries and indulgences of this life.
The Silk and The Sword
The purple silk cloth is an example of physical luxury. Silk is the finest of all materials, while purple was the most expensive colour dye.
As a symbol, the Japanese Samurai sword works on two levels. It represents both military power and superior craftsmanship. These razor edged swords, which were handcrafted to perfection by skilled artisans, were both beautiful and deadly weapons.
The Stoneware Jar
The stoneware jar at the right hand edge of the picture probably contained water or oil; both are symbolic elements that sustain life. Over the centuries, however, the oil paint that the artist used has become transparent and if you look closely you will see that it is starting to reveal the bust of a Roman emperor painted beneath the jar - you can see its nose and mouth just to the left of the rope handle. This shows a change to the composition that the artist has made during the painting of the still life. At some stage of the work he decided to swap the more complex form of a sculpted bust for the simpler form of a stoneware jar. This was probably because the Roman emperor was too dramatic an image to be placed at the edge of the arrangement as it detracted from the importance of the skull as the painting's focal point.