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Vanitas Still Life: Soup Bubbles, a garlanded Skull, an Hourglass, a Watch, a snuffed Candle and other objects on a partly draped Table

(1624 Netherlands)


Artist(s): PEETER SION THE ELDER (1624-1695)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Signed: ¬Signed lower right on the table leg: P sion f

Anon. Sale, Christie's, London, 5 July 1985, lot 17; Private Collection, Germany.


J. de Maere & M. Wabbes, Illustrated Dictionary of 17th Century Flemish Painters, Brussels, 1994, Text, p. 362, and Plates, vol. II, fig. 1985.


A painter of still lifes, genre scenes and biblical subjects, Peeter Sion I was apprenticed to F. Lanckveelt from 1636 to 1637. In 1649/50 he became a master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke, where he was made dean in 1682/3. According to the church registers of Notre Dame in Antwerp, he married on 7 September 1670. His death at the age of 71 was registered on 21 August 1695.

The Colnaghi picture is a vanitas still life. It contains numerous references to the passing of time (the hourglass and watch), the vanity of our existence (the mirror), the transience of life (soap bubbles) and the inevitable conclusion of this - death (the snuffed candle and skull). If this then is the human condition, what can man do? The garland atop the skull may suggest that fame can perhaps offer some form of escape from death. However, the real answer is provided by the text on the sheet of paper, written in three languages (Latin, French and Flemish) and in three different scripts so all may understand: man must lead a sinless life, and then one will be rewarded on the day of the Last Judgement (alluded to by the painting in the background depicting Saint Jerome visited by the angel sounding the Last Judgment).

The texts are as follows:
ECCLE[siastes] VII
Si tu veulx viure [vivre] sans pecheΠvoij ceste image a tous propos et
point ne sera empesche quand tü tŒen iras a repos.
Merct dit met Aendachtigeyt
spiegelt u hier in dit belt
ghij sult inden sunicheijt
Vrij van sonden syn gestelt.

The first two sentences may be translated as follows:
‘Now and in all eternity we shall not sin.’
‘If you wish to live without sin, take a look at this painting whenever possible, and you will not have to be ashamed of anything when you go to your last rest.’

The same sentiment is echoed in the Flemish text.