On reaching Parshat “Vayechi” one can be struck with a sense of melancholy and a strong feeling that our sojourn in this world is temporal and insignificant. Our strong Father Yakov Avinu reaches his final days on earth. Knowing that his children will be in Exile for a long time he asks Joseph; “please… don’t bury me in Egypt”. This statement reminded me of a trip I once took to the Museum where a certain representational painting caught my attention.
The painting is called “Vanitas”. The artist who painted Vanitas was Jacques “De Clauew” Grief, who was born 1642 and died during the year of 1677. He died when he was about 35 which was not so uncommon for his time, but always very tragic. De Clauew was born in Dordrecht, a small river town in northern Holland. Because of a physical deformity, he was given the nickname of “de Claeuw” meaning, ” the claw”. At first sight, the painting can draw you closer and convey a personal message.
Vanitas, conveys a spiritual message without all of the images of biblical figures, angels or demons. The name of the painting is “Vanitas” meaning vanity. its name gives the painting a clear direction and purpose as to the message of what is being portrayed; the brevity of life, or the emptiness of worldly concerns. In general, this painting would fall into the category of a “Still Life” painting, which means a painting or a photograph of inanimate everyday objects. These objects are typically cups, bowls, plants, fruit, vegetables, pottery and the like.
In examining the painting Vanitas, we can see that De Clauew uses a multitude of object scattered across the table for the painting’s visual form; according to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, the partially covered celestial globe serves as a tribute to astronomy. The globe, along with a copy of the soothsayer’s Amsterdam Waersegger Almanach (1677), refers to man’s inability to accurately predict the future. The musical instruments, inkwell, sealing wax, and cards refer to the vanity of worldly amusements. The hourglass and the smoke associated with the pipe and candle denote the passage of time. The flies and flowers are symbolic of decay and shortness of life on earth. The image of Venus refers to the impermanence of physical beauty. The small portrait of the prominent engraver Pieter de Jode (1604-1674) is a reference to the immortality an artist attempts to gain through artwork. The artist also chooses to use an array of different materials such as cloth metals, wood ceramics and even plant life to lend textual diversity to the painting. All of these diverse objects tell us that man may be involved with many things and yet remain empty-handed at the end of this worldly journey that he finds himself in.
In this painting, the artist wanted to show two things; harmony and diversity. The variety here is used by placing a multitude of different objects on the table representing different aspects of human interest, the musical, spiritual and scientific. Harmony here can be easily seen through the name of the painting; “Vanitas” to say that most, but not everything we do, falls under the category of the mundane. Sometimes we can live a little higher and be more than human.
This painting by De Clauew depicts the struggle between intellect and emotion, nature and nurture, free choice and fate, time and the timeless, mortality and the immortal, G-d and Man. The question that comes to mind when I see this painting is; can Man attain everlasting meaning in this temporary world?
Our Parsha, Vayechi also contains ideas of mortality and exile. Yet we call it “Vayechi” which means and Jacob lived! “Veychi Yakov B’eretz Mitzrayim” Even in this world, the symbolic Egypt, we can live to attain great heights of spirituality, holiness, wisdom and meaningful pursuits in this temporal world. While living in this temporal world we can still seek the divine through the mundane. Jacob showed us how to did this by making his last years in Eygpt the best years of his life. The painting “Vanitas” reminds us that we should say to ourselves every once in a while “don’t bury me in Egypt!”