Lenka Sediva argues that Wellcome Collection’s Wax Vanitas is an artwork for our uncertain times.

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection. 

Vanitas are contemplative works of art intended to remind the viewer of the transience and shortness of human life, the uselessness of vanity and the certainty of death. They are closely related to the earlier tradition of memento mori, which is the heartening Latin message ‘remember you must die’. Today, in the middle of a global pandemic, we are facing a real challenge. Our mortality scares us.  Perhaps, it might be the right time for some contemplation: Vanitas might help us find our peace.

Alongside some daily exercise and other domestic activities, we might try to find solace in the wisdom and legacy of our ancestors. Besides the abundance of free movies and other available entertainment, let us step into the digital collections of museums. Wellcome Collection offers a real feast for the public and scholars. I have always been fascinated by their library and collection, and since I am based outside of London, in Durham in the North East, I am very grateful for their digital collections that allow me to access and discover their fascinating depository. When I had the opportunity to visit Wellcome’s galleries as a participant in the Thinking Through Things workshop, I was enchanted by the three-dimensional Wax Vanitas model which dates back to the eighteenth century.

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Made in Europe by an unknown artist, Wellcome’s Wax Vanitas is a tableau of a life-sized head symbolising humanity and mortality. On one side, the tableau is resembling Queen Elizabeth I, showing her face during her lifetime. The other half shows a skull inhabited by insects and reptiles that feast on decaying flesh. The verse inscribed underneath reads Vanitas Vanitatum, Omnia Vanitas (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity). This quote is from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes where vanity/vain is referring metaphorically to ‘something that is fleeting or elusive’ such as ‘mist, vapor, or mere breath’.

Wax Vanitas features many symbols that are characteristic of this type of artwork. ‘Vanitas’ is the Latin term for vanity, which also signifies the worthlessness and emptiness of being obsessed with worldly possessions because all material objects will eventually fade. This is communicated via iconography such as the skull as a reminder of the inevitability of death; wilting flowers symbolise fading; jewellery represents unnecessary adornment and excessive wealth that we cannot take with us after we die. Vanitas remind people that they should not neglect their spiritual and religious life, since our soul is the only thing that we will take from the earthly world. Among Christian symbols, we find here an apple representing the original sin and a salamander symbolizing a creature resistant to the fire of hell and passions. Therefore, as Sarah Jaffray from Wellcome Collection explained, though this Vanitas Head is obviously obsessed with earthly possession and might seem hopeless, it also symbolizes the fight with the idea of ‘resisting the fires of earthly temptation’.

While the majority of Vanitas were printed or painted, the Wax Vanitas in Wellcome Collection is a three-dimensional, life-size model. This hyper-realism compels you to stop and look. In today’s situation in particular, I appreciate the Vanitas as a contemplation piece which reminds us that facing our mortality does not need to be perceived solemnly as a depressively morbid fact, but that we can take it as an impetus to reconsider our values and make some changes and improvements in our earthly life.

Although Vanitas might evoke a range of diverse feelings, they are fascinating and powerful pieces of artwork, whose purpose has not been lost across the centuries. They remind us that in facing our own mortality we are actually facing the only certainty during our lifetime – and we need to accept this. Perhaps, similarly to the people in the past, viewing death as ever-present could be an incentive to live a better life.

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Lenka Sediva is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar in Visual Culture at Durham University. Her project focuses on the material and visual culture of Domestic Medicine, Women and Nationalism in Early Nineteenth-Century Bohemia.

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