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The History of the Church 22 Emergence of the Great Symbols First inspired by the Old and New Testaments, and then by the lives of the saints and events in the history of the church, traditional religious iconography has also been influenced by theological themes, in symbolism that can mystify both the irreligious and Christians themselves. This is particularly the case with the countless “vanities,” paintings that wealthy penitents had in their oratories to help them meditate on the futility of the things of this world (all the while contemplating a work of art). “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (in Latin, vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas), declares the biblical book Ecclesiastes. In order to illustrate this fragility of the joys of this earth, artists painted still life compositions juxtaposing symbols of worldly pleasures with signs of their illusory nature: gold coins, musical instruments, weapons, coats of arms, and culinary delicacies appear alongside grinning skulls, dust, and withered flowers. Sometimes children or cherubs are seen blowing soap bubbles, another symbol of the fragility of the things here below. At times Vanity herself, a lovely nude woman accompanied by a peacock, admires herself in a mirror. At other times, a piece of cheese in various stages of decomposition suffice to illustrate the subject. Often, a maxim accompanies the painted theme, emphasizing the pedagogical nature of the painting: “Vanity,” “Know thyself,” or “Remember that thou shalt die.” Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) Skull and Jug Collection Peter Nathan, Zurich ...


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