German Vanitas Paintings: A Reminder of Our Imminent End

The vanitas theme inspired artists throughout Europe to create intriguing images that warn the viewer against the transience of vanities. Here’s how German artists approached the subject.

Dec 12, 2022By Anisia Iacob, MA Art History, MA in Philosophy
german vanitas paintings art


Inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes, vanitas was particularly popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in Dutch and Flemish art. Due to its popularity, various regions adopted the same theme and created works that both took inspiration from the Northern examples and introduced their own elements to create a unique image. This article discusses the popularity of this genre in the German region from several perspectives, under the name of German vanitas.


What Influenced German Vanitas Paintings? 

georg flegel still life food german vanitas
Still Life by Georg Flegel, ca. 1625-30, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The vanitas is influenced by a number of factors, depending on the geographical space, history, and socio-economic situation of the region. In this case, German vanitas refers to the artworks produced in the German space that adhere to and seem to be influenced by the visual theme of vanitas. The vanitas theme has its origins in the text from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which denounces all vanities as meaningless as they have no worth in the face of death. Material things shouldn’t be actively pursued and valued because they cannot join us in the afterlife, nor they can save us from our imminent perish. The vanitas works produced by German artists and schools have a common origin with all other such paintings through this Christian text that birthed the genre.


There are another two major influences of the German vanitas paintings. This genre took off in most European countries in the 16th century, becoming very popular by the middle of the 17th century. The waves of the Black Death that swept Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries can be connected to this growing interest in vanitas paintings. Living in uncertainty and witnessing people dying horrible deaths, one can find solace in the afterlife and in the thought that all material things are meaningless. The visual composition of a classic vanitas can also be tied to the Reformation and the events that followed, as some vanitas works advise a simple life; a philosophy that matches with the Reformation aesthetic and opposes that of Catholicism.


Religious Context in 16th to Late 17th Century Germany 

martin luther portrait german vanitas
Portrait of Martin Luther from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca. 1532, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


As mentioned, the Reformation deeply impacted the Germanic states in art, mentality, religion, and society. The Reformation began in 1517 with Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” when he argued against the corruption of the Catholic Church. This was the catalyst for a series of upheavals and discontent, which eventually led to The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which was dubbed “the most destructive war of the modern period.” The German space was quick to embrace the Reformation as it criticized corruption and promoted accessibility to religion for the wider population by translating the Bible from Latin to German.

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On the other hand, the Catholics weren’t looking to lose their followers in Germany and started the Counter-Reformation in 1545 through the Jesuit order. This assured a continued Catholic influence in the region, even if most Germans accepted the Reformation.


The Reformation and Counter-Reformation had an enormous impact both on art and the art market. By adhering to Luther’s ideas, art buyers acquired a slightly different taste according to their new beliefs. They rejected displays of wealth and other vanities and looked to lead a simpler life inspired by the Bible and Jesus’ life. Moreover, they focused more on contemplating the afterlife, Judgement Day, and Salvation. Depending on the specific confession, these beliefs slightly differed (for example, accepting or rejecting the idea of predestination), but the core was similar. Due to this, a growing interest in the message of the vanitas paintings may be safely linked with the political and religious context of the time that impacted the art taste and market.


How Are Art, Society, & Religion Connected?

anonymous peasants fighting german vanitas
Two Peasants Fighting and Death by anonymous, ca. 1616-1699, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


As highlighted previously, the Reformation had a significant impact on European states. Lutheranism, in particular, became thus an influential confession among the reformed and was quick to influence mentalities and society. In the early modern period, despite technological advancements, religion played an important part in the lives and minds of people. This is shown by the engagement in the Thirty Years’ War, which didn’t only have a political purpose but also a very strong religious aspect as well.


Religion and theological truth mattered for the higher-ups just as much as they did for the rest of the population. The people were actively and socially engaged and interested in theological debates and the religious developments of the time. This, in turn, meant that they had a say in what artists created and what people bought in terms of art. Artists were inspired by the ideals of the Reformation and the shift of focus from grandiosity towards simplicity and started creating works that resonated with this.


At the same time, the Counter-Reformation was another side of this coin, as artists continued to create works that would be sought after by Catholic clients. Even in the case of German vanitas works, there are paintings that combine to some extent both the morality of the Reformation with the aesthetic of the Catholic Baroque.


How to Identify German Vanitas Paintings

georg flegel still life german vanitas
Still Life with Flowers by Georg Flegel, 17th century, via the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


There are a few elements that set apart the German vanitas from the vanitas of other regions. Even if they generally share a common visual vocabulary that uses the same elements to express transience, the preference for some aspects over others is notable in understanding how this theme manifests in different spaces.


The visual phenomenon of the danse macabre was quite popular in German art, and, as a consequence, it got transmitted and reflected in vanitas as well. For example, many vanitas works in different mediums featured an entire skeleton instead of the usual skull. Moreover, this skeleton is either positioned near a living human or is seen jesting or dancing, making thus a direct connection with the danse macabre theme. In some compositions, skeletons are depicted imitating human actions either alongside living humans or by themselves.


Another interesting motif of vanitas works that doesn’t seem to be so popular in other regions is that of the allegory of transience. Instead of this allegory being depicted as a young child playing with bubbles or as a child near an older person, transience is shown as a pregnant woman who carries or is near a skull. This is a very ingenuous allegorical depiction as the pregnant woman with the skull carries in a single person all phases of existence: infancy, adulthood, and death. This allegory of transience is often shown in a setting that contains other traditional elements of the vanitas, such as mirrors, burning candles, or luxurious objects.


Varied Modes of Expression: Prints Over Painting Over Sculpture

anonymous still life german vanitas painting
Vanitas Still Life with Skull by a German master, ca. 1620, via Städelmuseum, Frankfurt


Vanitas artworks are more often associated with the technique of painting, but this theme can be found in other mediums as well. The Reformation impacted even the medium preference of both artists and buyers. For example, sculpture had much to suffer in this sense because, during the early years of the Reformation, the population expressed frustration towards the Catholic Church by smashing statues from various churches. This led to sculptures having a sort of stigma and an unfortunate association with Catholicism. Due to this, the technique of sculpting lost interest and popularity among both artists and commissioners.


On the other hand, sculptures continued to thrive in places where the Counter-Reformation was strong, and the influence of the baroque was predominant. This is easily seen in the case of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who brings this technique to new heights.


While sculptures looked as if they fell from the public’s grace, another technique besides painting was gaining popularity. Prints debuted in the German space and continued to be an influential medium of expression throughout the early modern period. They were used to disseminate information through pamphlets or other informative short publications, replicate images or text, and create books.


As most confessions that originated in the Reformation promoted education and study, this led to an increased interest in the book and print market, with people reading more. This new mentality, together with the accessible price of printed materials, resulted in success. Vanitas works made use of this, and the surviving prints with a vanitas theme are the living testimony of this. Whoever couldn’t afford to buy a painting could virtually anytime buy a copy or an original vanitas composition that could be pasted on the wall inside one’s home.


The Power of Prints

barthel beham child skulls german vanitas
Sleeping Child with Hourglass and Four Skulls by Barthel Beham, 1512-1540, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Around 1436, Johannes Gutenberg started perfecting his model of the printing press. This invention permanently changed how knowledge was replicated and distributed. Books were the first to benefit from this, as manual copying, a laborious and lengthy process, was replaced by semi-automated copying. Instead of manually copying a book, a printing press could copy dozens of books in a shorter time.


By 1500, the printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million copies. In the following century, the number is estimated to have been ten times bigger. The printing presses of the 17th century produced between 1,500 and 3,500 impressions daily. The publications of books in Germany increased drastically as between 1518 and 1520, Luther’s tracts were distributed in 300,000 printed copies. This alone testifies to the production capacities of this new industry. How did this impact German vanitas?


As mentioned previously, vanitas was expressed in multiple mediums, and artists were therefore sure to make use of the powers of the printing press. Painting was a laborious process that would produce just one picture, whereas paper impressions done through woodcutting or engraving, even though difficult, would produce hundreds of pieces. From an economic perspective, it was an excellent opportunity for artists to gain a stable income by selling prints. Due to this, vanitas compositions are quite popular in print too. This contributed to the survival and transmission of certain motifs. A painting may be lost, but this is not the case for hundreds of prints of the same image.


German Vanitas Paintings

barthel beham mary child german vanitas
Mary with Child in Breast and Skull by Barthel Beham, 1512-1540, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


In this last section, the German vanitas will be discussed through the particular examples of a few selected artists. The first such artist is Broder Matthisen (1615? – 1666), who worked most of his life in the German region as a painter. From 1651 to 1661, he was a court painter, first in Gottorf and then in Berlin. He painted various subjects, among which the theme of vanitas is present in his surviving paintings. His vanitas works feature open books and luxurious objects to signify the uselessness of vanities. His example is interesting because he was a court painter, indicating that the theme was popular even among the people with the highest ranks.


Another interesting artist from an earlier period is Barthel Beham (1502-1540), who produced vanitas-themed works on paper. He was mainly active in Nuremberg and Munich as a painter, engraver, and court painter for the Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria. In his prints, he masterfully integrates vanitas elements in traditional composition, such as portraits of persons, religious themes, and so on. The motif of danse macabre is also visible in his works, as skeletons are found in the company of young people or small children. There is an abundance of works that can be grouped under the name of German vanitas, but most of these works were made by now unknown artists. Therefore, it is sometimes hard to fully understand the context of their creation.


In conclusion, there are some elements that are more common in what can be called German vanitas. These paintings are often the product of artists or schools inspired by Dutch or Flemish works but adapt them to their own society, context, and visual culture. It’s no surprise then that, just as in other European spaces, the Reformation affected artistic production and vision or that the theme of danse macabre is very influential.

Author Image

By Anisia IacobMA Art History, MA in PhilosophyAnisia Iacob holds an MA in both Art History and Philosophy at Leiden University. She holds a BA in Art History where she focused on 17th century Dutch vanitas painting and a BA in Philosophy where she researched fashion and embodied cognition. With a keen interest in anything and everything, her research interest goes from history to neuroscience, attesting to her curious personality. Besides studies, she works as a contributing writer. Anisia looks forward to finishing her two MAs and starting a PhD in Philosophy.