This type of painting is called a 'vanitas', after the biblical quotation from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:2): 'Vanitas vanitatum... et omnia vanitas', translated 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'. The books symbolise human knowledge, the musical instruments (a recorder, part of a shawm, a lute) the pleasures of the senses. The Japanese sword and the shell, both collectors' rarities, symbolise wealth. The chronometer and expiring lamp allude to the transience and frailty of human life. All are dominated by the skull, the symbol of death.

Key facts

Artist dates
1612 - 1656
Full title
Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life
Date made
about 1640
Medium and support
Oil on oak
39.2 x 50.7 cm
Inscription summary
Acquisition credit
Presented by Lord Savile, 1888
Inventory number
Location in Gallery