The Vanitas Painting and the Bodybuilder

Vanitas PaintingHave you ever wondered why so many artists, especially Dutch artists in the 17th and 18th centuries, painted still lifes of skulls, flowers, and over-ripe fruit. Okay, you probably haven’t wondered that, but the next time you go through an art museum and see one of these paintings by somebody like Pieter Claesz or Adriaen van Utrecht, you’ll notice it.

Those paintings are products of the Vanitas school, focused on the ephemeral temporary nature of life. Think of them as the canvas-based enlargement of 1 Peter 1:24-25 and “all flesh is grass.”

In the painting above, we have various common elements of a Vanitas painting. The skull, obviously, represents death and mortality. The watch in the lower left suggests time passing. The lamp, just extinguished, speaks of the transitory nature of life, while the violin evokes music being played and then fading away. Reflections, bubbles, candles, flowers, and fruit all show up frequently in these works.

What brings this painting to mind, oddly enough, is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The undisputed master of bodybuilders, now 67 years old, no longer has the body that allowed him to play Conan the Barbarian so effectively. I won’t link to a photo of the not-so-svelte Arnold, but you can Google it if you like. Many 67-year-olds should look as good as Arnold, but when you’ve seen Mr. Olympia, the current body is hard to see.

The reality here–and it’s a reality that we don’t always want to face–is that every one of us is a living, breathing Vanitas painting. When Arnold had that Pumping Iron body, we all knew, even if we didn’t admit it, that he would eventually decline. The muscles would atrophy, the body fat would increase, and, somewhere down the road, that body would be placed in the grave. Even Jack Lalanne died eventually.

Does the fact that “all flesh is grass” mean that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasted his time creating that highly sculpted body? Given that he parlayed it into a considerable fortune, a movie career, and two terms as California governor, it doesn’t seem like a waste. (I’m not applauding all of his life choices, just to be clear.) All flowers will fade, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grow them. All bodies will deteriorate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of them while we are here.

The Vanitas painting conveys two messages. Most obviously, it reminds us of the inevitability of death, but it also conveys the preciousness of what life we have. Live what life God gave you to the best of your ability. It will end.