A butterfly flutters its wings, classical ruins waste away, a candle flame flickers, and Death arrives to surprise his victims. This selection of European Old Master prints from the Fine Art Collection demonstrates the transience of life and beauty. The artists explore in various ways – moving, funny, and melancholy – the fleeting nature of life on earth.
The prints date from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Many of the images were made during the 17th century Baroque period in Flanders and Holland, when the ‘Vanitas’ theme became popular. ‘Vanitas’ is the Latin word for ‘emptiness’, and is used to describe images of decay and the passing of time. They are often still-life compositions, including objects such as hourglasses, human skulls, burning candles and wilting flowers.
These symbols remind us of the short span of human life. Despite their sinister or moralising messages, these allegorical images celebrate earthly beauty. The artists portray inert objects with such sensitivity and attention to detail that they almost bring them back to life.
Many of the prints personify Death. He is shown abducting a young woman, spying on an old couple counting their gold, or aiming his arrow at his next victim. The figure of Death is often associated with the Latin saying ‘memento mori’ (‘remember you will die’). Death’s presence invites the viewer to contemplate the brevity of earthly pleasures and the Christian prospect of an afterlife.
‘Memento mori’ images began in antiquity, and became especially popular in the Middle Ages when premature death from plague and other pandemics was common.
Knight, Death and the Devil
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513, FA207975
Albrecht Dürer was a German graphic artist and painter, one of the foremost figures in Northern Renaissance art. Dürer was apprenticed to the painter and book illustrator Michael Wolgemut in Nuremberg, where he later established his own workshop.
In this print, a knight on horseback in full armour encounters Death and the Devil. The knight faces straight ahead, determined not to let them distract him from his path. Death wears a crown encircled with snakes and holds an hourglass symbolising the brevity of human life. The Devil, holding a pickaxe, approaches the knight from behind.
There have been several interpretations of this famous print, which Dürer simply called The Knight. It may represent the knight from Erasmus’s Handbook of the Christian Knight (1502). This urged Christians to live as soldiers in the service of God, to march through life fortified and armed with religious faith. The city on the cliff may symbolise a fortress of Virtue. The dog represents faithful devotion
Luca Ciamberlano (1599-1641)
Two Skulls, 1600-1630
Luca Ciamberlano executed the Two Skulls for a drawing book of designs intended for artists to copy. It was printed by the Roman print dealer Pietro Stefanoni (1597-1629).
This still life of two skulls serves as a reminder of the brevity of life. One skull faces the viewer while the other faces away. This positioning suggests that death is omnipresent. The skulls have been carefully engraved in order to accentuate how light falls on the smooth oval surfaces.
An elaborate Latin inscription states that ‘Nothing is more certain than death. Nothing is more uncertain than the day of death’.
Memento Mori. Finis Coronat Opus, 17th century
A skull sits on an open book inscribed in German ‘Christ is my life Death my destiny’.
The Christian emphasis of the image is highlighted by scales placed on top of the winged hourglass, suggesting that a time will come when our good and bad deeds will be weighed and judged by God. The burning candle and the picked flowers indicate that, unlike the eternal spirit of Christ, our time on earth is short.
The crowned skull is a literal expression of the aphorism ‘finis coronat opus’ (meaning ‘the end crowns the work’). The Latin title Memento Mori means ‘remember you will die’ and is used in art to describe images that remind us of human mortality. The subject of the ‘memento mori’ goes back to antiquity, but became especially popular in the 17th century.
Butterflies and Insects
Chinese Artist Unknown
Butterflies and Insects, 19th century
Vibrantly coloured butterflies and insects swarm across the flat white surface of the paper, transforming it, with their fluttering wings, into a three-dimensional space. The flux of the moment is invoked. In one image the insects have been caught in a spider’s web, highlighting poetically the fragility of their movements.
These decorative watercolours were made in China for export to Western Europe. A number of painters might collaborate on each painting, each restricted to a single colour.
Pith paper is made from the spongy interior of the stems of the Chinese ‘tongcao’ plant (Tetrapanax papyrifera). In English it is mistakenly called rice paper. Before 1800 it was mainly used for the manufacture of artificial flowers. Since it was much cheaper than other types of paper, from the early 19th century it was used for painting, to satisfy the growing demand for affordable souvenirs.
Piazza della Villa Adriana
Giovanni Battista Piranese (1720-1778)
Piazza della Villa Adriana (The Piazza of Hadrian’s Villa)
Views of Rome, 1760-1778
Here, Piranesi portrays the ruins of the villa built by emperor Hadrian (AD76-138) at Tivoli, just outside Rome.
Only a few walls remain of the splendid palace, which Hadrian used as a countryside retreat. Piranesi depicts the melancholic beauty of the decaying building, emphasizing both the greatness of ancient Roman civilization and its eventual demise.
The print is part of a series of 135 plates entitled Vedute di Roma (“Views of Rome”), which Piranesi began in 1748. This kind of print was sold to tourists and travellers who visited Rome as part of their Grand Tour. The Views played an important role in shaping the popular image of the city.
‘Vedute’ describes a genre of images that were either precise representations of buildings or monuments, or a fanciful combination of real structures with imagined additions. Here Piranesi shows an existing view but he exaggerates the scale of the ruins in order to dramatise the theme of decay and transience.
Portrait of Caravaggio
Simon Henri Thomassin (1688-1741)
Portrait of Caravaggio (after Caravaggio), 1660
This print by the French engraver Thomassin is based on a self-portrait by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610). The artist, wearing torn clothes, holds up a mirror reflecting his middle-aged face. On the desk in front of him are a book and a skull. Surrounded by these symbols of transience, Caravaggio reflects on his own mortality.