Teach Us to Number Our Days (Artful Devotion)

Jacques de Gheyn II (Netherlandish, 1565–1629), Vanitas Still Life, 1603. Oil on wood, 32 1/2 × 21 1/4 in. (82.6 × 54 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust
and say, “Return, O children of man!”
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

. . .

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.

. . .

So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

—Psalm 90:1–6, 10, 12

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MUSIC: Élégie in E-flat Minor, op. 3, no. 1, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1892 | Performed by Sheku Kanneh-Mason, with Isata Kanneh-Mason, 2017

I’ve mentioned these stellar sibling musicians on the blog before, when I shared Sheku’s arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” In fact, all seven Kanneh-Mason siblings, ranging in age from eleven to twenty-four, are musical—and of an exceptionally high standard! Their debut album as a family, Carnival, dropped November 6; it is a collaboration with Oscar-winning actor Olivia Colman and children’s author Michael Morpurgo.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason released Rachmaninoff’s Élégie, from Morceaux de fantaisie, as a single in 2017. He has two solo records: Elgar (2020) and Inspiration (2018).

Isata Kanneh-Mason has also recorded as a solo artist: see Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann (2019).

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Vanitas (from the Latin vanus, “empty”) is a subgenre of still life painting, especially common in the Low Countries in the seventeenth century, that shows, through symbolism, the brevity of life and the transience of earthly pleasures.

Art historian Ingvar Bergström discusses Vanitas Still Life by Jacques de Gheyn II (Jacob de Gheyn) at length in the 1970 journal article “De Gheyn as a ‘Vanitas’ Painter.” The commentary that follows is derived from that.

In de Gheyn’s painting, a skull sits inside a stone niche on a bed of dry grass, a reminder that “all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth . . .” (Isaiah 40:6–7; cf. 1 Peter 1:24). Sitting on the left side of the ledge, the tulip and the wild rose with the fallen petal symbolize how man “cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” (Job 14:2). The smoking urn on the other side references Psalm 102:3: “my days are consumed like smoke.” Between these two are a spill of Spanish coins and a Dutch military medal, and propped up against the ledge on each side is a gold ten-ducat coin showing, on the obverse, Joanna and Charles as sovereigns of Aragon. The message is that beauty, riches, and worldly power and honors all come to an end.

Lest this message somehow be missed, HUMANA VANA (“human vanity”) is carved into the top of the arch. The inscription is flanked by fictive sculptures of Heraclitus and Democritus, the weeping and laughing philosophers of Greek antiquity. Both figures point to a soap bubble (“Man is but a bubble” is a classical aphorism), which, if read in light of the traditional iconography of the two philosophers, doubles as a globe.

de Gheyn II, Jacques_Vanitas Still Life (bubble detail)

The bubble mirrors a number of disparate objects, which are difficult to make out. Bergström identifies a trophy group along the middle axis of the bubble: a crown in the center with various weapons converging upon it. At the top is an upturned moneybag with coins streaming out. Most discernible is the wheel of torture at the bottom right, and above that is a leper’s rattle, which lepers in some areas were required to shake to alert others to their proximity; these are symbols of human frailty. Also reflected “are a caduceus (probably signifying commerce) and a pair of bellows (signifying luxury?). Playing cards, backgammon with dice, and drinking vessels allude to vain pleasures and pastimes. The highlight of the sphere mirrors a burning heart, pierced by an arrow—an image of earthly love, of luxury” (153).

Though the painting doesn’t explicitly reference our lectionary reading from Psalm 90, it does complement the psalmist’s reflection on how short and precarious life is—it’s like a wilting flower, a burning candle, a fragile bubble. Here today, gone tomorrow. Which is why it’s so important to live wisely while we still can.

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To access another Artful Devotion for AProp28, on 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, click here.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 28, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Memento mori; works of mercy; ring shout; The Seventh Seal

Affiliate links: Art & Theology is now a participant in the Amazon Associates program, an affiliate marketing tool that enables me to potentially collect a little change by hosting Amazon links on my website. I already do that anyway—link to Amazon product pages when I mention books, movies, or less often, music (I try to drive sales directly to the artist’s website, if one exists)—so you will not notice any change in blog post appearance or the frequency of links. But now that I’m registered, if you were to click through one of those Amazon links (for example, Shout Because You’re Free or The Seventh Seal below) and make a purchase, any purchase, I would earn a referral fee of 2.5% to 5% of the purchase price. I have to generate at least three purchases every 180 days to stay in the program. As of now, this is the website’s sole income stream.

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EXHIBITION: “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” June 24–November 26, 2016, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine: Skeletons, skulls, and other dark images of death from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were meant to remind their owners of life’s brevity and thereby prompt repentance. Some target specific sins, like clinging too tightly to one’s wealth or good looks. “This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the memento mori, featuring macabre imagery urging us to ‘remember death,’ reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.” A symposium, “Last Things: Luxury Goods and Memento Mori Culture in Europe, ca. 1400-1550,” will be held November 3–4. You can read a review of the exhibition at Hyperallergic.

Memento mori (prayer bead)
Ivory prayer bead, France or southern Netherlands, 1530. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On one side of the carving is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull, worms crawling through its bared teeth.

Vanitas (16th century)
Vanitas, Germany, ca. 1525. Boxwood. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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ART COMMENTARY: The Seven Works of Mercy by the Master of Alkmaar: The corporal works of mercy, seven in number, are a traditional Catholic practice of serving the physical needs of others. Derived from Matthew 25:31–46 (cf. Isaiah 58:6–10) and Tobit 1:16–22, they are to: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give water to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) shelter the homeless, (5) care for the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead. Earlier this month Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker wrote a two-part visual meditation on a Netherlandish polyptych (altarpiece with four or more panels) from the sixteenth century that treats this topic. In the background of each contemporary enactment of mercy stands a silently affirming Jesus. To view the panels in high resolution, visit the Rijksmuseum website.

Seven Works of Mercy
The Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504. Oil on seven panels, 120 × 472 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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ALBUM: Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast by the McIntosh County Shouters: The McIntosh County Shouters from coastal Georgia are the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a shuffle-step devotional movement, accompanied by singing, that is rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and was forged by the Atlantic slave trade. Shouting differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution, Art Rosenbaum writes in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. In 1980 two folklorists, astonished to find the form still in use, encouraged practitioners to take it public. The community thus assembled a small touring group, and in 1984, under the Smithsonian Folkways label, they released their first album. This year they released their second, with a mostly new selection of songs (all but three) and all-new performances. You can watch “Jubilee” below. (Thanks, Global Christian Worship, for the tip!)

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FILM: The Seventh Seal (1958): After receiving several recommendations, I finally watched this classic of world cinema, directed by Ingmar Bergman, and actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It follows the medieval knight Antonius Block as he returns, disillusioned and exhausted, from a decade-long Crusade, only to encounter Death, whom he challenges to a fateful game of chess. (This central image, Bergman said, was inspired by a church fresco, reproduced below.)

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
Albertus Pictor (Swedish, ca. 1440–ca. 1507), Death Playing Chess, 1480s. Fresco, Täby Church, Uppland, Sweden.

The movie’s title is taken from Revelation 8:1—“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”—establishing the silence of God as a major theme. Antonius’s monologue in the chapel confessional evinces his struggle between doubt and belief:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams. . . .

Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. . . .

I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. . . . I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

But along his way he ends up meeting a “holy family”—simple and with pure faith and hope—whose names, Mia and Jof, are diminutives of Mary and Joseph. Bergman presents their worldview as a contrast to the bitter skepticism of Antonius.

For reviews that trace themes of faith and doubt in The Seventh Seal, see David Nilsen and Steven D. Greydanus.