Art: “Vanitas Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull” by Evert Collier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=Vanitas+-+Still+Life+with+Books+and+Manuscripts+and+a+Skull&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image 

Written by Rhody Walker-Lenow, Doctoral Student, Duke Divinity School 

a skull on a table with lots of other items--painting
 “Vanitas Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull” by Evert Collier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
a skull on a table with lots of other items–painting
“Vanitas Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull” by Evert Collier

As I sit down to write this devotion, I am having trouble focusing. Usually, the desk in my office that overlooks the parish graveyard of the church where my husband is the priest is a reliably peaceful spot. My husband and I love walking around the graveyard in the evenings, and we’ve walked it so many times now, in fact, that we’ve mapped it out in our minds. We know the graves of 19th-century John and Eleanor, who, even though they died 50 years apart, are remembered in stone as “Beloved Husband” and “Beloved Wife.” I know the grave of Emily, who died shortly after the Civil War, on whose tombstone reads, “Thine Forever, Lord of Life,” a perfect line of an old hymn that I had to look up. And we always walk by the grave of Anna Beth, the nine-year-old my husband buried last year. Her grave is just to the left of our house. Her family lives a few states away, so I visited her most days last summer right after she was interred. I see her spot clearly from the window of my office now, where I am trying to write about Lent.  

But today there is a funeral happening at the church—a bigger one than usual. This is the reason for my lack of focus. More than 300 people will be there, my husband tells me (the church only seats 250). There are so many cars today that the parking has overflowed into our front yard.  

The scene has me looking up every few minutes. (Even writing the above two paragraphs has taken me an hour.) Especially now: the mourners are walking from the church, across our yard, to the new side of the cemetery for the interment. I should be writing, but I am watching—all 300 of them, dressed in black, pulling their coats tight against the wind.  

Of course, I say with a bit of embarrassment, this is also the day—the day of this uncharacteristically large funeral—that FedEx has decided to deliver all the gifts our friends and family bought from our wedding registry. Hundreds of people are crying in the cold, and I am trying to intercept the FedEx trucks before they get so far up the driveway that they have to loudly beep as they reverse back down and interrupt the interment happening 20 yards away. A body is being buried and I am worrying about the delivery of our very cool oversized and overpriced wine glasses. 

So, it happens that I am having trouble focusing. Focus, from the Latin for “hearth” or “fireplace,” or the more figurative “home” or “family,” meant something like “point of convergence” in the English language when it cropped up in colloquial use in the 1650s. (We have mathematical Kepler to thank for that.) To be unable to focus, then, signals a loss of convergence—a dispersion, a scattering, a separation. And in a less mathematical sense, to lose one’s focus is to lose one’s family, some core that essentializes us.  

I got married last year, but my parents also separated after more than thirty years together. The divorce will be finalized this summer. I welcomed two nieces, but my best friend struggled with infertility. I am starting to build relationships at my husband’s church in Maryland, but our marriage meant leaving the church I loved in North Carolina where I was the children’s pastor. So it goes. A season for everything, I try to remind myself. “Vanity of vanities,” reminds the preacher. “A generation goes and a generation comes. The sun rises and the sun goes down.” Funerals happen. Matrimonial wine glasses are delivered. 

In 1663, right around the time “focus” was coming into the English language, the Dutch painter Evert Collier painted “Vanitas Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull.” The vanitas genre—named for the aforementioned ecclesiastical refrain “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”—became popular in the Netherlands in the 17th century. The trope began when painters occasionally painted skulls on the backside of portraits, little reminders of the inevitability of death, and evolved into an identifiable genre by the mid-16th century. (It is perhaps no surprise that the paintings’ popularity was nurtured by the rampant Calvinism in the area which stressed our total depravity.) 

Most vanitas paintings contain a predictable constellation of objects. On the one hand there are objects signifying life’s great pleasures: books of art and science, maps, musical instruments, jewelry, playing cards, gold, and goblets. On the other, there are objects that remind us of mortality: clocks or hourglasses, bubbles about to pop, mirrors crystallized and blurred with age—and, of course, skulls.  

Collier’s “Vanitas Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull” fits the genre in some obvious ways. The eponymous skull sits just left of center, lower jaw missing and only three teeth still intact in the upper. A flute sits just below a downturned roemer, a wine goblet with a thick, beautifully decorated stem. An hourglass is the highest point in the painting, towering over everything else on the table. We cannot see the bottom portion of the hourglass, but there is no sand left in the top. This is a vision of a life whose bones are long dry, whose time is long past. 

The painting is charmingly chaotic. Pages from a notebook are falling off the table. Quill pens are tipped over. Eyeglasses are perched precariously. The image seems to lack focus—there’s not an obvious center, not a core self holding it all together. In some ways, this is the point of the genre: vanitas paintings intend to juxtapose life’s brevity with what we perceive to be life’s point—joy, achievement, pleasure. They’re meant to make us contemplate our mortality—that what it is to be alive is also and always to be not-yet-dead. They’re meant to be humbling, and to remind us what has the final say.  

It is a painting of a funeral with a wine glass in its center. 

But there’s something else going on Collier’s painting. There’s something that is altogether atypical in the genre. Nearly the whole righthand third of the painting is consumed by a large open book that is propped up by the skull’s temple. It’s a thick, dense text at first glance. The words are not distinguishable—they’re just thin, black squiggles—but the headings are legible: “Sermoon VI” the left page reads. “Decadis IIII, Fol. 191” reads the right. 

It’s not unusual to have books in vanitas paintings. It’s not even unusual to have religious texts (like the Bible) in these paintings. But a book of sermoons—sermons—is uncommon. A bit of research taught me that the book is Heinrich Bullinger’s Decades. Bullinger was a 16th-century Swiss reformer and priest who worked with Calvin to systematize Protestant theology. Decades was his most significant theological work, a compilation of 50 sermons that were widely distributed and kept in the homes of many. Collier has pointed us to the second page of the sixth sermon in the fourth decade, or volume. The sermon’s epigraph reads: “That the son of God is unspeakably begotten of the Father; that He is consubstantial with the Father, and therefore true God. That the selfsame Son is true man; consubstantial with us: and therefore true God and man, abiding in two unconfounded natures, and in one undivided person.” In other words, the sermon that Collier has perched against this poor skull is a sermon on the incarnation. 

In the fifth week of Lent this year, the Old Testament lectionary reading is Ezekiel 37:1-14, the passage in which the Lord sits Ezekiel down in a valley of bones. The Lord leads Ezekiel around the valley, where Ezekiel notices that there are, in fact, many bones, and that the bones are very dry.  

“Mortal,” the Lord says to Ezekiel, “can these bones live?”  

“O Lord God, you know,” Ezekiel cryptically replies. 

“Prophesy to the bones,” says the Lord, “and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” 

And the word of the Lord for these bones is incarnation: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 

Ezekiel’s prophesying in this chapter has been the subject of much visual art in the last thousand years, and yet I still find it hard to visualize. It is hard to imagine the precise choreography of a resurrection. It is hard to imagine the knitting together, the convergence, of muscle, skin, and breath that the Lord describes. This is why Collier’s painting strikes me and strikes me hard. It seems to me that Collier’s vanitas might be another image of Ezekiel’s prophecy. In the painting, a dry skull rests under God’s prophetic, incarnational word. “To give life everlasting doth belong to the power of God,” reads the Bullinger sermon. Christ “forgiveth sins, that by his power he maketh alive and raiseth up from the dead, even as his Father doth,” he writes. 

“I am going to open your graves,” says the Lord to the bones. “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people.” 

It is unlikely that Bullinger ever preached his sermon aloud in a church or anywhere else. The Decades were treatises written in the style of sermons. It is therefore unlikely that, though our skull has rested beneath the prophetic words of Bullinger for over 400 years, it has ever heard them spoken. We ought to hear an invitation in this silence. We ought to hear an invitation to preach these words ourselves. 

If Easter is a story about what God does in graveyards, it seems that Lent might be a story about what we do in graveyards—in the power of the Lord, by the grace of God. Absent God, graveyards are principally places of decay. But because of the risen Lord, we may also preach in them, though the words we might say seem hard to imagine. The oldest grave in Maryland is outside my window, just slightly out of view. The grave belongs to a woman named Rachel, and she was buried here about the time Collier painted this skull. It seems hard to imagine that I might say to Rachel, “O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” She has waited so long. 

The funeral outside my window is nearly over. A delivery man arrived halfway through with the wine glasses. They are gorgeous. I have been unfocused. I see my husband preaching over bones not yet dry. And now I must determine what will be my last word, what will have the final say.  

Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:

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