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)