This macabre illustration appears in a manuscript on cabbalistic alchemy by Jodocus Müller, an apothecary of 17th century Dresden. The title scroll reads, “The faithful mirror of the miserable condition of all men.” Below, worms feast on a bishop’s corpse. The wall of his tomb is decorated with Bible passages: “Sons of men, how long will you be dull in heart, so that whatever you love is in vain, and whatever you seek is false?” [Psalms 4:3], “All flesh is grass, and all its glory is like the flower of the field. The grass has dried up and the flower has fallen,” [Isaiah 40:6-7], “But I am a worm and not a man: a disgrace among men, and an outcast of the people,” [Psalms 21:7], “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return,” [Genesis 3:19].
Beneath a row of skulls, Müller quotes Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” The Latin vanitas might be better translated as “emptiness,” “futility,” or “meaninglessness.” In allusion to this verse, a “vanitas” has come to refer to any symbolic work of art concerned with the transience of life and the futility of worldly pursuits.
Image by the Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0).