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.

Nunc dimittis (Artful Devotion)

presentation of christ in the temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, ca. 1650. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

—Luke 2:29–32

These words were sung two thousand-plus years ago by a Jewish man named Simeon upon seeing and holding the newborn Christ child at his presentation ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. Known as the “Nunc dimittis” (from the Latin for “Now you dismiss”), the song has been used year-round in Compline, Vespers, and Evensong worship services since the fourth century. Since the seventh century, it has served as the centerpiece of the annual feast day known as Candlemas, celebrated on February 2 in the West and February 15 in the East (the Western and Eastern churches count forward forty days from their celebration of Christmas Day, on December 25 and January 6, respectively).

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SONG: “Nunc dimittis” from All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1915) | Arranged by Bob Chilcott (2016) | Performed by Katie Melua and the Gori Women’s Choir, on In Winter (2016)

Rachmaninoff’s “Nunc dimittis,” the fifth movement of his All-Night Vigil, was one of his favorite compositions of his career, and he requested that it be performed at his funeral. Its melody is based on a Kievan chant from the Russian Orthodox Vespers service but employs a few rhythmic adjustments and, furthermore, is carried forward by a soloist. As Vladimir Morosan notes in his essay “The Sacred Choral Works of Sergei Rachmaninoff,” “The slow rocking motion of the accompanying voices on two-note descending figures, akin to a lullaby, imparts to the piece a static and peaceful quality.”

The performance above is by Katie Melua, a Georgian singer-songwriter from the UK, who in 2016 returned to her native Georgia to record a winter-themed album with one of the country’s all-women singing troupes. The choral arrangements on In Winter, including “Nunc dimittis,” were specially commissioned of Bob Chilcott.

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Icons are central to the devotional lives of Orthodox Christians. Here I’ve included three from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts, which I had the pleasure of visiting about five years ago. Iconographers follow very specific guidelines in their writing of icons, which is why there has been little variation over the centuries. To learn how to read an icon of the Presentation of the Lord, see this “iconreader” blog post.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1600. Tempera on wood. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.

Presentation of Christ in the Temple
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 16th century. Tempera on wood, 24 × 16 in. Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts.


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 the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, cycle C, click here.