Paintings like Rachel Ruysch’s Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip can be overlooked as merely decorative. However, in their original contexts they functioned as powerful theological meditations rooted in the book of Ecclesiastes and in Dutch Reformed theologies of art.
In this image, a riot of blooming flowers spills over the edge of a vase, filling the visual field with evocations of sensual pleasures (including sight, smell, touch). Light gently plays across velvety translucent petals, papery leaves, and glass. Every intricate surface is rendered with astonishing sensitivity and care, as if to insist that these particular creatures matter precisely as they appeared to this particular person in particular moments (which may actually have spanned several weeks). The daughter of a distinguished professor of botany and anatomy (Chadwick 1990: 138), Ruysch knowledgeably rendered the specificity of these plants in their sheer gratuity, receiving them with delight and gratitude.
Yet there is also a dark undertow to this painting (and others like it). The lush surfaces evoke delight but also impending decay: the image subtly but decisively alludes to the inevitable wilting of flowers, the decomposing work of insects that crawl through the leaves and along the table, the withdrawing of light into darkness. The human care that courses through the painter’s brushwork celebrates these delicate organisms while also recognizing their mortality, their fleetingness, their subjection to a pervading ‘vanity of vanities’.
Dutch flower paintings like this, and the broader vanitas tradition to which they belong, expand on Ecclesiastes in affirming, as strongly as possible, both sides of this reality. Ruysch’s Flowers goes further than Ecclesiastes in celebrating creaturely temporality as a radical gift—the marvellous particularity and inexplicable givenness of being here—while also conducting a modest renunciation, a willingness to enjoy these particular gifts with open hands and to let them pass away. And indeed, to do so as someone who is also inexorably passing away. Hear the words of the Teacher: ‘breath, breath; everything is breath’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
Chadwick, Whitney. 1990. Women, Art, and Society (New York: Thames & Hudson)
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
5The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already,
in the ages before us.
11There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to happen
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.