Vanitas (Latin for 'vanity') is a genre of art which uses symbolism to show the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. The paintings involved still life imagery of transitory items. The genre began in the 16th century and continued into the 17th century. Vanitas art is a type of allegorical art representing a higher ideal.
The word vanitas comes from Latin and means vanity. Vanity is referenced in the Bible's Old Testament in Ecclesiastes 12:8, "Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity". The message is that human action is temporary and faith is forever.
Vanitas is a sub-genre of still life painting which Dutch painters during the Baroque period (c.1585–1730) employed. The Spanish painters also created vanitas paintings which coincided with the end of the Spanish Golden Age. Memento mori is a similar theme which when translated from Latin means, "remember that you will die."
A group of painters in Leiden began to produce vanitas paintings in the beginning of the 16th century and they continued into the 17th century. Vanitas art is an allegorical art representing a higher ideal or containing hidden meanings. Vanitas are very formulaic and they use literary and traditional symbols to convey mortality. Vanitas often have a message that is rooted in religion or the Christian Bible.
In the 17th century the vanitas genre was popular among Dutch painters. The paintings often have symbolic imagery which attempts to convey the message that we will die, and we should think about futility of our earthly pursuits. The well known Spanish vanitas refer to Spain's rulers and the politics of Spain. It was popular to include skulls in vanitas paintings. In the 17th century, a skull symbolized the ephemeral nature of life.