The Art of Ash Wednesday: Omnia vanitas

Photo credit: Gene Han

Ash Wednesday, not a day for feasting, but rather for fasting and contemplating the fleetingness of life and all its pleasures.

In the seventeenth-century Netherlands, a remarkable style of painting arose, still-life, the most intriguing in some ways being that of the vanitas still-life. Usually artists portrayed a skull surrounded by the gifts (as they saw it) of a blessed life. Food, books, tobacco, flowers, everything that helped to make life worth living. These object helped the artists get their message across: “Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas“: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” (From Ecclesiastes in the Latin Bible.)

The following gallery of paintings reflects this artistic preoccupation, which in many ways resembles the altars formed by celebrants of the Mexican Day of the Dead:

Willem Claesz Heda, 1628
Cornelis de Heem, after 1661
Vanitas Allegory, Pieter Boel, 1663
Georg Hainz
Georg Hainz, 1666
Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1640
Philippe de Champaigne

In Celebrating Italy, a book about feasts and food festivals throughout Italy, Carol Field throws in a charming digression into the “Pranzo del Pugartorio,” held on Ash Wednesday in Gradoli, Italy.  Cooks prepare food for up to 2,000 people. You’d never know it was a fasting day, since the people gorge on six different fish dishes, including fish soup unique to Gradoli, braised pike, and baccalà in bianco.


Serves 4 – 6

2 T. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

3 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice

1 bay leaf

1/2 t. fresh marjoram

Pinch of crushed fennel seeds

3 cups whole milk

1 1/2 t. sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Sauté the onion in the oil until translucent, add the garlic and cook another  30 seconds. Add the bay leaf, marjoram, fennel, and milk. Simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes. Add the potatoes and salt; simmer until tender. Season with pepper and top each serving with some of the chopped parsley. Serve with crusty bread.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

5 thoughts on “The Art of Ash Wednesday: Omnia vanitas

  1. Mae —

    I hope that you ignored the first mention of “potato” — and added them AFTER the milk simmered with the spices. I just noticed that I originally had “potato” going in with the spices — NO. I’ve corrected the recipe. Sorry for any inconvenience.

  2. Interesting selection: I especially like the cabinet of curiosities. I believe collectors really assembled such arrays of objects, not just in paintings.

  3. From what I’ve read about the vanitas paintings, many artists tried to portray the fleetingness of life and how everything comes to an end, which fits in with what you’ve mentioned here.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I particularly like the details in the first one (Willem Claesz Heda, 1628): the plate is empty and the glass is upside down. The object in the upper right (candlestick, oil lamp, etagiere) and the pipes are also empty. Most vanitas paintings show the good things in life, but here even the good things have run out.

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