“LIFE how short, ETERNITY how long!”

January 4 2010, 8:41pm

You might remember our Halloween blog, “Trick or Treat,” in which we focused on a number of artworks that feature skeletons. The last work we mentioned was full of quotes and symbolism, and we’re back to tell you a bit more about this curious picture. This engraving is titled Life and Death Contrasted, or, An Essay on Woman. It belongs to the genre of symbolic still life painting known as Vanitas (Latin for “vanity”) intended to remind us of our own mortality and the transience of earthly possessions and vices. Like Memento Mori painting (from the Latin “Remember you will die”), the most popular symbols found in these works are skeletons or skulls, but they may also include symbols of vanity (such as mirrors and musical instruments), expressing the emptiness and worthless nature of worldly goods.

Here a lady is depicted in two halves, shown both in life and in death. On the left she is represented in elaborate aristocratic costume, standing in a garden and surrounded by her earthly pleasures and holding a fan. The superficial trappings of a life of leisure and gambling lay at her feet, including playing cards, books and papers instructing on gaming and masquerade. On the right we see only her skeleton  standing within a cemetery with worms coiling around a skull and bone at her foot.  She holds an arrow in her hands, used to symbolize death. The arrow is sometimes also used to represent disease, specifically the Plague.

Beside the skeleton stands an obelisk inscribed with proverbs, bible verses and sermon excerpts decrying worldly pursuits and reminding us, and women in particular, that “she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth” (1 Timothy 5:6) and that they should be wary of their mortal pursuits while striving toward heavenly salvation.Other phrases contained on the obelisk come from the “Gravedigger Scene” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (5.1): “Now get you to my lady’s table and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this complexion she must come at last.” Another author represented is the Reverend James Hervey (1714-1758), and Anglican Divine and zealous writer, whose oeuvre influenced the work of artists like William Blake. The excerpt on the obelisk comes from his 1746 volume Meditations Among the Tombs: “One night, Corinna was all gaiety in her spirits, all finery in her apparel, at a magnificent ball. The next night, she lay pale and stiff, an extended corpse, and ready to be mingled with the mouldering dead.” Perhaps something to reflect upon at the beginning of this New Year…