Vanitas Painting or Memento Mori: What are the Differences?

The vanitas and memento mori are two popular themes in art from the past few centuries. This article will explore the differences between vanitas vs. memento mori.

Nov 17, 2022By Anisia Iacob, MA Art History, MA in Philosophy

vanitas painting vs memento mori differences


Both vanitas and memento mori are vast art themes that can be found in ancient and contemporary artworks alike. Due to their diversity and very long history, it is sometimes hard for the viewer to have a clear image of what makes vanitas vs. memento mori to be as such. Notably, they are most often associated with 17th-century Northern European art. Because the themes have many similarities, sometimes it’s quite difficult for the viewer to understand the differences between the two. To examine the characteristics of vanitas vs. memento mori, this article will use 17th-century paintings that can serve as good examples to understand how the two concepts work.


Vanitas vs. Memento Mori: What is a Vanitas? 

Allegorie op de vergankelijkheid (Vanitas) by Hyeronymus Wierix, 1563-1619, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The term “vanitas” has its origins in the first lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible. The line in question is the following: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanity, all is vanity.”


A “vanity,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is the act of being overly interested in one’s appearance or achievements. Vanity is closely related to pride and ambition regarding material and ephemeral things. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, vanity is frowned upon because it deals with impermanent things that avert our attention from the only certainty, namely that of death. The saying “vanity of vanities” has the purpose of emphasizing the uselessness of all earthly things, acting as a reminder of the coming of death.


A vanitas artwork can be called as such if it makes visual or conceptual references to the passage quoted above. A vanitas will convey the message of the uselessness of vanities in either a direct or an indirect manner. For example, the artwork can contain a display of luxurious things that emphasizes this. It can also simply show a direct and straightforward depiction of the passage from The Book of Ecclesiastes. 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


At the same time, the same message can be conveyed in a subtler manner that makes use of refined symbolism. For example, a vanitas can depict a young woman admiring her decorated image in a mirror, alluding to the fact that beauty and youth are passing and, therefore, as deceiving as any other vanity. With this being said, the theme of vanitas can be found in various forms in a multitude of artworks throughout time, ranging from direct to more subtle ways of representation.


What Is a Memento Mori? 

Still life with vanitas symbols by Jean Aubert, 1708-1741, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The origin of the memento mori theme can be found in the same Latin phrase that translates into “remember you must die.” Similar to the vanitas, the memento mori puts an emphasis on the ephemerality of life and on the fact that life is always followed by death.


The meaning of memento mori is a cautionary remark that reminds us how even if we are living in the present and we enjoy our youth, health, and life in general, this is all illusory. Our current well-being doesn’t warrant in any way that we will be able to escape death. Therefore, we must remember that all men must die in the end and there is no avoiding it.


Just like the vanitas theme, the memento mori one has a long history ranging from ancient times, particularly the art of ancient Rome and Greece. The theme was highly popularized in the Middle Ages with the motif of danse macabre, which acts as a visual illustration for the memento mori saying.


To symbolize the inevitability of death, artworks usually employ the image of a skull to signal mortality. The theme is found quite often in painting, either in a direct or indirect way. The more direct case is when one can find the presence of a skull or skeleton that is associated with things or persons which can be linked to living. The more indirect way of showing the theme of memento mori is through the presence of objects or motifs that indicate the ephemeral character of life. For example, the presence of a candle that’s either burning or was just recently put out is a popular way to symbolize the transience of life.


Similarities in Vanitas vs. Memento Mori 

Memento mori by Crispijn van de Passe (I), 1594, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


One of the most obvious similarities is that both themes have to do with death. When looking at vanitas vs. memento mori, they share a number of similarities; both in their main theme and also in the symbols that are used to depict and express their messages. Of the symbols used, one that is most common and can be shared by both works is that of the skull. The skull can act as both a reminder of the transience of vanities, but also as a reminder of the inevitable death of the individual.


Someone looking into a mirror is another similar motif that can act as both a vanitas and a memento mori, holding a very similar meaning to that of the skull motif. Besides this, some other similarities between the two can be found in the presence of expensive objects, such as rare fruits, flowers, or valuable objects. All of them have the ability to express the intended message of the uselessness of material things. Vanities are meaningless because they can’t change the impending death, while all material objects cannot follow us in death.


Besides the message of death, vanitas vs. memento mori works share the commonality of the same hope. Both of them intend to inspire the viewer with the promise of the afterlife. Even if everyone dies at some point during their life, there is no need for despair. One cannot fight against the inevitable but can turn towards God and religion to hope for a continued existence.


The promise of the immortality of the soul is an underlying message that is common in both vanitas and memento mori. The transcience of life and the uselessness of objects is emphasized because the viewer is invited to invest in what lasts beyond death, namely in the soul.


Why Are They Interconnected? 

Bubble-Blowing Girl with Vanitas Still Life in the manner of Adriaen van der Werff, 1680-1775, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


One can justly wonder why the two themes of vanitas and memento mori are interconnected and tend to refer to each other. As was stated before, death is a phenomenon that is central to both themes. Because of this, vanitas and memento mori use a similar visual vocabulary. However, their interconnectedness goes beyond visual elements. Because of their similar message, vanitas and memento mori artworks attracted buyers from art collectors and average people alike, as people from all walks of life could relate to the inevitability of death. The transience of life has a universal appeal as death is certain for both rich and poor people. Therefore, artists made sure to offer a variety of paintings, often in the form of still-lifes with vanitas or memento mori themes which could be bought for an accessible price.


Because of this popularity, an impressive number of such early modern works survive today, helping us to better understand their charm, variety, and evolution. If these works didn’t make it into the private homes of individuals, the themes of vanitas and memento mori were also reflected in public spaces. For example, the motif of danse macabre (an element of the memento mori theme) can be found throughout Europe in various forms, oftentimes painted inside churches or other buildings which were visited very often. These themes spread even further in the public space by being featured on the graves of important persons as early as the late 15th century. Vanitas and memento mori were thus some of the most popular themes in art during this time.


Differences in Vanitas vs. Memento Mori 

Allegory of Death by Florens Schuyl, 1629-1669, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


So far, we have emphasized the commonalities and connections between vanitas vs. memento mori. Even if the two have a great number of common points, they are still quite distinct themes that carry slightly different messages and undertones. In vanitas works, the emphasis is put exclusively on vain things and riches. Beauty, money, and precious objects are vanities as they are not necessary for our existence and don’t fulfill a deeper role except for that of being an object of pride. As it is known, pride, lust, and gluttony are associated with vanity, and the message of vanitas is to avoid these deadly sins and take care of the soul instead.


On the other hand, in memento mori artworks, the emphasis is different. Memento mori doesn’t warn the viewer against a specific type of object or a set of sins. On the contrary, it’s not so much a warning as it is a reminder. There are no specific things to be avoided. Instead, the viewer has to remember that everything is passing and that death is certain.


Now that these differences have been indicated, it must be said that vanitas vs. memento mori is more closely related to the Christian worldview because of its origin. Having its origin in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the vanitas message is more Christian, whereas the memento mori, having its origins in ancient Greece and Rome, isn’t tied to a specific religion. Due to this difference in origin, the two themes carry different historical contexts that affect the way in which they are perceived. The memento mori theme is more universal and can be found throughout different cultures. On the other hand, the vanitas is connected to a Christian space and appears to have some Stoic origins as well.


How to Discern Whether an Artwork is a Vanitas or a Memento Mori

Still life by Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor, 1640-1672, via Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Now that the similarities and differences between vanitas vs. memento mori were discussed at length, this last section will offer a few tips on how to identify each of them. As previously mentioned, both themes use a common visual vocabulary to some extent. The main hint for identifying a vanitas from a memento mori is the overall message of the artwork. Does the painting highlight the vanities of human life by representing numerous luxurious objects? If yes, then the painting is more likely a vanitas. Does the painting contain more common objects such as a clock, a burning candle, bubbles, or a skull? Then the painting is most likely a memento mori because the emphasis is not on the finer things in life but rather on the passing of time and the coming of death.


It can be very difficult to rely on symbols alone to judge whether a work is a vanitas or a memento mori. A skull can be used to represent both themes, for example. Therefore, this is not the safest route in most cases. Nuances are very important to understand what underlying message is communicated. Is the skull decorated with jewels, or is it a plain skull? In the first case, that is a reference to vanities, while the latter is a reference to death.


This article offered an in-depth explanation of how the vanitas theme differs from the memento mori one. Both of them are fascinating yet difficult themes that are very common in art from ancient up to contemporary times. Therefore, a keen eye and a good understanding of the emphasis of artwork will make it possible for anyone to distinguish a vanitas from a memento mori.

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.