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)