The Vanitas Altar: Remembering Death and Seizing the Day

By Tony Wolf

During late January of 2020 I returned to snowy Chicago from a three-week long vacation and family reunion in sunny New Zealand. During the trip we’d celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday with a surprise party and also received the devastating news of a death in the American branch of the family. At the same time, there were ominous reports from China about a new, highly contagious and potentially deadly coronavirus disease.

About a month before the COVID-19 lockdowns began, with mortality on my mind and an urge to make art, I started collecting objects inspired by the symbolism of vanitas paintings.

During the 17th century, artists would carefully select and assemble items with an eye towards illustrating the impermanence of three earthly modes of being – the vita voluptuosa (life of pleasure), vita contemplativa (life of contemplation) and vita activa (life of action) – in oil paint.

Vanitas Still-Life With Skull and Flowers by Adriaen van Utrecht, circa 1642.

We already owned some suitable items – a brass compass, a simple ceramic bowl, a selection of antique books – and I bought some others, including an hourglass, a set of three wooden dice and an ornate sea shell.

The notion of the altar is to bring vanitas symbolism back into three dimensions as a form of secular assemblage art, inviting daily contemplation on the interplay between life and death. The altar occupies the space of a single bookshelf in our living room.

The calavera decorativa is placed before a small mirror, angled so that the viewer occasionally catches a memento mori glimpse of their own face juxtaposed with the skull. Burning cones of incense provide a pleasant scent and also the wisps of smoke often shown in vanitas paintings, symbolizing the end of things.
Allowing flowers to desiccate in their vase is an excellent reminder of impermanence; likewise the candle, allowed to melt down to a stub.
The ceramic bowl holds tokens found during my evening walks – small pine cones, interesting pebbles, seed pods, chips of brick, leaves and so-on. The pocket watch (a long-ago birthday gift) and the hourglass represent the passage of time and the boons and limitations of human ingenuity, while the wooden dice evoke chance and the temporary enjoyment of earthly pursuits. The empty shell probably speaks for itself.
Dating back to the 1890s, the books are precious but now decaying archives of human knowledge and achievement. The scattered and battered coins – some in danger of falling – serve as reminders that money isn’t everything.

The vanitas altar and associated practices are works in progress, including the practice of finding small items to add to the altar during my evening walks. I’ve found that this habit transforms the walks into a kind of dérive – mindful drifting with the aim of getting lost, in some sense or other, to experience or learn something new. When the leaves start to fall this coming October, I’m planning to incorporate memorial elements from the Dia de Muertos tradition of the ofrenda into the vanitas altar by displaying photographs of deceased family members and friends.

The entropic vanitas aesthetic has much in common with that of the Japanese wabi-sabi philosophy, which favors humility, rusticity and the imperfection of time-worn and hand-made objects. Vanitas altars require an investment of creativity but they don’t require much of your time, nor money, and I can firmly recommend making your own if you feel so inclined. Please feel free to get in touch via the comments and I’ll be happy to offer any advice or feedback that may be useful. In the meantime, here are some resources that I’ve found inspiring:

How to Altar the World: Amalia Mesa-Bains’s Art Shifts the Way We See Art History

These Lush 17th-Century Paintings Were Striking Reminders of Mortality

Creating Shrines and Altars for Healing from Grief

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