Ecclesiastes 1:1–12

Vanity of Vanities

Commentaries by Jonathan Anderson

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David Bailly

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, 1651, Oil on panel, 89.5 x 122 cm, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden; S1351, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Grieving Time

Commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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David Bailly made this painting late in his life (age 67), but he portrays himself as a young man at the beginning of his career.

The young artist holds a maulstick (a device for achieving intricate brushwork) and presents what is presumably the object of his labours: a portrait of himself as an older man. This oval image-within-the-image is a self-portrait painted in 1642 on the occasion of Bailly’s marriage (at age 58), which marked a highpoint in his life both personally and professionally. The second oval portrait depicts his wife Agneta, who by 1651 had probably recently died of an illness of which we have no record—the small ball and chain on the table is a bezoir for steeping medicines; Agneta’s image is flanked by a snuffed candle and a ceremonial (funeral) wine flute; and the statuette of St Sebastian (a patron saint of plague victims) in agony seems to stare directly at her portrait. With this painting, the aged Bailly is seemingly confronting his youthful self and grappling with the joys and sorrows of the intervening decades, facing the contingencies of his ‘own embodied mortal existence as unfolding among things, before others, in time, and toward death’ (Martin 2006: 577).

Scattered across the table are an array of vanitas symbols denoting life’s fleetingness: an overturned goblet, wilting roses, a disused pipe, books laid shut, sand running through an hourglass, a skull. Three delicate bubbles float above the table as emblems of impermanence: homo bulla (‘man is a bubble’). The knife on the table in the foreground directs the viewer, as does the skull’s downward gaze, towards the lower right corner of the canvas, where an unrolled paper bears a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes 1:2—vanitas vanit[at]um / et omnia vanitas—a phrase that, in the logic of Bailly’s imagery, cuts painfully deep. Ecclesiastes’s sorrowfulness pervades the painting, lamenting the bitter futilities that compromise human life and unravel our labours (1:3), perceptions (1:8), and the memory of those we love (1:11).



Martin, Wayne M. 2006. ‘Bubbles and Skull: The Phenomenology of Self-Consciousness in Dutch Still-Life Painting’, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons), pp. 559–84

Recounting Time

Commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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David Bailly depicts himself as a youth in his twenties holding a portrait of himself in his late fifties—all of which he painted in his late sixties. In some sense, he folds the course of his life back on itself, creating an image with a profoundly strange temporal structure. Taking up the language of Ecclesiastes, Bailly’s painting is ‘an attempt to bind together the events of a life, to knit together the elements into a whole that makes sense’ (Martin 2006: 576).

In the process, Bailly sets his 1642 oval self-portrait as the ‘hinge’ of the image. He places it on the dominant vertical axis that runs through the corner of the back wall (which creates a sharp light–dark division) and the corner of the table—a vertical division that bisects both the oval portrait and the bubble hovering above it. Everything to the left of this axis is associated with the youthful Bailly: a clean palette ready for use, a flute (commonly associated with Dionysian exuberance), coins denoting early career successes, his hand nimbly holding the maulstick. Meanwhile, the jumble to the right intermingles luxury goods with strong allusions to ageing and dying: the bezoir, smouldering candle, skull, etc. Naomi Popper-Voskuil argues that the drawings on the wall reinforce this juxtaposition by invoking two Greek philosophers commonly featured in Dutch vanitas painting:

The young, gay lute-player [to the upper left] stands for the image of the laughing Democritus, the somber looking old man [to the right] for that of the weeping Heraclitus’, who each ‘laugh and cry respectively at the vanity of this world. (Popper-Voskuil 1973: 68)

The folded logic of Bailly’s painting, resourced by Ecclesiastes, is confronting not the meaninglessness of life but its transience and our inability to resolve the losses and ruptures created thereby: ‘What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted’ (Ecclesiastes 1:15). Indeed, the fleetingness is so painful precisely because the fragile gift of life is so thick with meaning.



Martin, Wayne M. 2006. ‘Bubbles and Skull: The Phenomenology of Self-Consciousness in Dutch Still-Life Painting’, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons), pp. 559–84

Popper-Voskuil, Naomi. 1973. ‘Selfportraiture and Vanitas Still-Life Painting in 17th-Century Holland in Reference to David Bailly’s Vanitas Oeuvre’, Pantheon, 31: 58–74


Rachel Ruysch

Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip, 1716, Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 36 cm, Private Collection; L1208, On Loan to The National Gallery, London. © Private Collection.

Grace and Transience

Commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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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)

Wealth and Transience

Commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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If Rachel Ruysch’s Flowers fosters reflection on the marvellous ontological gratuity of these fleeting creatures—the gift that is their very being—it also elicits reflection on the social and economic backgrounds implicit in the gathering and staging of this bouquet. The variety of blooms in this vase attests to the extensive economic structures supporting their cultivation and commercialization. In Ruysch’s context, such a grouping of flowers connoted not only intense earthly pleasures but also immensely concentrated wealth and opulence.

Ruysch’s bouquet is crowned with a Semper Augustus tulip, one of the most expensive and highly coveted flowers in Dutch society. Indeed, during the ‘tulipmania’ of the 1630s a single bulb regularly sold for many times an average household’s annual income. The delicate red and white striping is produced from ‘broken’ bulbs, infected with an unpredictable virus that breaks the flower’s natural colour into spectacular patterns but weakens the bulb and hinders propagation—thus compounding demand for it. These tulips bloom for only about one week in springtime, making the play between luxury and fleetingness potent and riddled with questions of value.

Such imagery pulls ‘in the two spiritual directions at the heart of the Dutch predicament: between enjoying and celebrating an unprecedented wealth, while also questioning its true worth’ (Martin 2006: 563). The same cross-pressure pushes through the pages of Ecclesiastes, beginning in the prologue (1:8) and growing throughout (esp. 5:8–6:12).

Flowers also extends these questions of value to image-making itself. Ruysch rigorously observed each individual blossom, yet the overall pictorial ‘bouquet’ is highly fabricated, combining plant species that could never all have been in bloom (and certainly could not have been painted in such detail) at the same time. Ruysch seems temporally to ‘freeze’ each of them, preserving their lavishness from decay. But (in a self-reflexive move) she also builds vanitas into the logic of the image itself: everything pictured here, as well as the patron and the picturer herself, are now utterly gone, leaving only the image.



Martin, Wayne M. 2006. ‘Bubbles and Skull: The Phenomenology of Self-Consciousness in Dutch Still-Life Painting’, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons), pp. 559–84

Jacob van Ruisdael

A Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church, c.1665–70, Oil on canvas, 109 x 146 cm, The National Gallery, London; Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876, NG990, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Scaling Time

Commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscape paintings rarely depict places precisely as they appeared. Rather, they are imaginative, synthetic mergers of several experiences: composite ‘views’ of the world designed to contemplate the structure of human experience in a mode deeply informed by and conversant with Ecclesiastes (Walford 1991). This particular painting presents an invented site (based on an area near Haarlem in the modern-day Netherlands) as a visual meditation on creaturely temporality.

In the foreground to the left, two shepherds pass the time in conversation, giving human scale to the massive expanse of space and of history that surrounds them. Opposite them, a ruined fortress stands in peaceful ineptitude: the ramparts have been overtaken by vegetation and grazing sheep, a shepherd and his dog casually stand in the breach of the wall, three white swans gently transverse the moat. Beyond them, the surface of the earth recedes endlessly toward the horizon, opening onto a vast plain dotted with villages, each marked with a church spire. Rows of stooked sheaves stand in the fields, signalling that harvest is underway. At the horizon, the earth gives way to the much greater expanse of the sky, filled with towering storm clouds that cast heavy shadows down onto the landscape.

Multiple spans of time are evoked in Ruisdael’s Landscape, which are similar to (and can be mapped onto) those in Ecclesiastes’s prologue: daily time marked by chatting shepherds (1:3, 5); seasonal time marked by harvest (1:3, 9); transgenerational time evident in the contrast between ruined and inhabited buildings (1:4, 10–11); geological time in the interplay of earth, water, and air (1:5–7). Perhaps even an eschatological time is evoked, one that exists ‘beyond the horizon’, toward and into which the church is called to live (thus projecting us beyond Ecclesiastes, which is almost entirely silent on eschatology). Set within these multiple timeframes, everything in Ruisdael’s painting is seen as graced but transient, glorious yet passing away, forcing the question of how wisely to measure the meanings of human striving (Ecclesiastes 2:3b).



Bergström, Ingvar. 1983. Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, trans. by Christina Hedstrom and Gerald Taylor (New York: Hacker Art Books)

Walford, E. John. 1991. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Life Under the Sun

Commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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Many of Ecclesiastes’s questions are concerned with the fact that human history unfolds within natural cycles that undermine and undo historical progress. This introduces an acute sense of futility into human experience: ‘What do people [adam] gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?’ (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Hebrew phrase ‘under the sun’ (tahat hashamesh) appears in the biblical canon only in Ecclesiastes but does so numerous times throughout this book, designating the spatial and temporal domain of earthly creaturely life, as distinguished from heaven (see Ecclesiastes 5:2), and the place of the dead (9:6). Ecclesiastes scrutinizes life ‘under the sun’ (1:13–14), toiling over the possibilities and limits of assessing the theological meanings of life ‘from below’. Jacob van Ruisdael extends this toil into a pictorial medium.

Amidst the dark shadows that cover the earth in Ruisdael’s Landscape, a sunlit clearing appears in the field beyond the church, where a lone windmill stands facing the wind. On the one hand, this tiny windmill punctuates the cyclical patterns at the heart of Ecclesiastes’s prologue:

The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. (1:5–6)

The windmill signifies the futilities of human enterprise within these cycles, serving as a sort of architectural hieroglyph for ‘chasing after the wind’ (1:14, 17).

On the other hand, E. John Walford highlights another theological context in which the sunlit windmill carried further symbolism for Ruisdael:

In emblem literature, a man without the spirit of God is compared to a mill without wind. In one such emblem, light-beams, focused on the mill, accentuate the notion of man’s dependence on providence. (Walford 1991: 151)

 Ruisdael’s windmill might well signify a vain toiling ‘under the sun’ but there is perhaps also a further spiritual meaning underlying this first one—one that solicits us to reimagine how open or closed the world and its inhabitants are to the Giver of life.



Walford, E. John. 1991. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press)

David Bailly :

Vanitas Still Life with Self-Portrait, 1651 , Oil on panel

Rachel Ruysch :

Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip, 1716 , Oil on canvas

Jacob van Ruisdael :

A Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church, c.1665–70 , Oil on canvas

The Weight of the Question

Comparative commentary by Jonathan Anderson

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The key word reverberating through every page of Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word hebel (or hevel), which in its most concrete sense means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. But as quickly becomes evident, especially as the Teacher’s hebel-judgements accumulate, this ‘vapour’ is a densely metaphorical term, causing translators throughout the ages to struggle to capture the proper sense of the claim that all things are ‘fleeting’, ‘empty’, ‘futile’, ‘vain’, ‘absurd,’ or ‘meaningless’.

The anonymous voice we hear in the book’s prologue (Ecclesiastes 1:1–11) and then again in the epilogue (12:8–14) frames the Teacher’s message and sharply summarizes his thesis: ‘utterly vapours, says the Teacher, utterly vapours; everything is vapour’ (1:2; 12:8). English translations traditionally render the key phrase ‘vanity of vanities’, following the Latin Vulgate’s vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.

Ecclesiastes’s meditation on the hebel of creaturely life has exerted enormous influence in the history of Christian art, particularly since the Protestant Reformation (Walford 1991: 20–26), generating the tradition known as vanitas painting (Bergström 1983: 154–90), of which David Bailly and Rachel Ruysch are prominent examples. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch artists worked within the intellectual heritage of John Calvin, who (because of concerns about idolatry and doctrinal error) enjoined artists to abandon biblical and hagiographic subjects and to instead focus ‘only’ on that ‘which the eyes are capable of seeing’ (Institutes, 1.11.12). Merging this with Calvin’s notion of creation as the ‘theatre’ of God’s glory, artists like Ruysch, Bailly, and Jacob van Ruisdael devoted themselves to depicting everyday phenomena—still-life scenes, portraits, landscapes—as sites for theological meditation, scrutinizing creaturely life as both pervaded by God’s prodigious grace and also riddled with futility. In this, Ecclesiastes’s notion of hebel proved to be a generative frame of reference.

Rachel Ruysch’s Flowers emphasizes the beauty of hebel, encouraging us to receptively attend to creaturely life in its gratuitous, delightful, momentary givenness. She renders this bouquet as a means of relishing every particularity, every unnecessary detail as gifts to be received with care and thanksgiving (cf. Genesis 2:9a; 1 Timothy 4:4). Yet she also recognizes them as inexorably fleeting, introducing a strong sense of futility into the logic of the image itself. As ‘the eye never has enough of seeing’ (Ecclesiastes 1:8), Ruysch’s painting aspires to sustain a vision of delicate flowers long after they themselves have passed away—holding their life ‘still’ before our eyes in an impossible instant in which these flowers are simultaneously and forever in bloom. Time absolutely does not allow them to be gathered in this way: neither to be held onto, nor held together. Transience is thus invoked both by her choice of subject-matter (flowers as emblems of fleetingness) and also by the representation itself as an emblem of the utter disappearance of everything pictured therein. Ruysch’s paintings engage these phenomena as hebel—as ‘breath’ in the double sense of being both life-giving and fleeting. Ecclesiastes repeatedly mulls over this same duality (2:24–25; 3:11–13; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10; 11:7–10).

David Bailly’s painting draws out the profound sorrows of hebel. Adopting Ecclesiastes 1:2 as the painting’s epigraph, he, like the Teacher, foregrounds the precariousness of life, mourning the bitter reality that everything he cares about is going to vapours—that every precious gift he has received will and must be lost (cf. Ecclesiastes 5:15). Painting near the end of his life, Bailly visually articulates a painful, irresolvable futility built into human concern and toil: the gift of creaturely temporality, the very gift of life, entails being already thrown towards death, towards an unravelling of what one’s life was spent ravelling. So then ‘what’, he asks with Ecclesiastes, ‘does a man gain from all the toil at which he toils under the sun?’ (1:3). His painting laments, more than answers, the weight of that question.

Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape helps shift our attention to the wider terrestrial and transgenerational scope of Ecclesiastes 1:3–11: ‘Generations come and generations go, but the earth [including both natural and civilizational cycles] remains the same … there is nothing new under the sun’ (1:4, 9). In Ruisdael’s vision, human beings and their endeavours are dignified but impermanent, sustained within and undone by the passage of time—a vision that renders any pretension to human autonomy a ‘vanity of vanities’. Life under the sun is hebel, orientating us not towards absurdity or despair but towards the decentring ‘conclusion of the matter’ in Ecclesiastes’s epilogue: ‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man [adam]’ (12:13).



Bergström, Ingvar. 1983. Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, trans. by Christina Hedstrom and Gerald Taylor (New York: Hacker Art Books)

Walford, E. John. 1991. Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Next exhibition: Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:26

Ecclesiastes 1:1–12

Revised Standard Version

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.