Frans Francken II, a talented Flemish painter (Antwerp, 1581-1642) who ran an important workshop in his hometown, belonged to an artistic family. Both his father and his son were painters as well, although he was the most productive and the best known of the Francken dynasty. After his apprenticeship in his father’s workshop he was admitted to master status in the Guild of St-Luke in 1603. To be admitted to this title the apprentice had to submit a so-called “masterpiece”. Once he was master he could open his own shop and take on apprentices. Frans Francken II specialised in small “cabinet” paintings.
The object that attracts our attention is a Vanitas, a symbolic still life painting. Vanitas paintings are meant as a reminder of the transience of life and the utmost importance of the salvation of one’s soul. This pictorial genre was highly esteemed in the Netherlands during the baroque period. It is in fact closely linked with another theme that was particularly popular during the Middle Ages, the Memento Mori. This Latin phrase can be freely translated as “Remember that you are mortal”.
When Vanitas is discussed the bible verse Ecclesiastes 1:2 often comes to the fore: “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas” or “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity”. With these few words the Church preaches the uselessness of gathering riches and wealth because there is only one certainty: the certainty of death. Everybody, whether rich or poor, wise or foolish, must die. Thus, no time to waste to become godfearing and pious and to prepare oneself forJudgement Day.
In the 17th century death was no longer solely regarded as the gateway to salvation but also as the end of the terrestrial life with its ensuing losses of all worldly goods. Vanity paintings thus also deal with the fear of men who are conscious that their earthly belongings will not help them any further when death is knocking at their doors . To illustrate the utter uselessness of riches, the instability of all material things, the relativity of knowledge and the brevity of life painters had a whole collection of objects and symbols at their disposal: the hourglass which symbolises the time passing by and the brevity of life, bubbles, a mirror, a half burnt candle, a skull etc. Similar objects can be found on the painting of Frans Francken II. An hourglass, an emaciated skeleton, a violin, coins, jewelry, silverware, a bookshelf and a fragile vial.
On the fore, there is a strong reminiscence of the medieval Danses macabres. Personified Death plays the violin in front of an elderly man who is surrounded by his belongings and he invites him to dance. Death charms mankind with his music and lures him into dancing and participating. Like Vanity, the Danses macabres or Dances of Death want to remind people how fragile their lives are and that no one escapes death. They are the artistic translation of a feeling that was omnipresent since the deadly horrors of the 14th century, such as the recurring famines, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Black Death decimated the European population. But the old man on the painting is not yet ready to go: he shows his wounded leg and points with his finger to a piece of paper, an account that still needs to be settled?
In the background a similar story is told: Death offers a piece of paper to a young man, thus reminding him his time has come to an end. A lesson to learn from this scene is that Death presents his accounts to whom and whenever he wants. Are these two scenes linked to one another? It is probable if we assume that the young man and the old man are one and the same person. Then the scene in the back might represent an event in the old man’s youth, such as signing a pact with Death. They might have concluded that the young man received some extra time to enrich himself and that Death would come some time later. The main scene refers to the completion of the agreement: Death comes to collect his due but the old man is not yet ready, he still has some affairs to sort out
This theme has been very popular with Frans Francken II. Others explored themes like Vanity and Dances of Death before him. He could have known “Der Totentanz”, a series of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger. These carvings became widespread and wellknown once they were published as a book in Basle in 1538. On the woodcut “Der Rych Man” one sees the greediness of Death: he steals money from the man who has to join him into the world of the dead.
From the highest ranks of hierarchy descending to its lowest, each mortal’s hand is taken by a skeleton in the Dances of Death. Vanity paintings mostly depict nobility, clergymen, scholars, artists, in other words high-ranked, rich or learned people. These paintings, as well as the medieval plays, expressed existential fears and were ostensive penitential sermons which even illiterate people could understand: riches will not help you any further when your time has come.
- Briels J., Vlaamse schilders en de dageraad van de Gouden eeuw, Mercatorfonds, Antwerpen, 1987, pp.259-267.
- Bergström I., “Vanité et moralité”, in L’Oeil, 1970.
- Härting U.A., Frans Francken der Jüngere (1581-1642): die Gemälde mit Kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, ed. Lucas Verlag, Lingen, 1989.
- Wolbeek I., Frans Francken II, La mort invite le vieillard riche à une dernière danse, Niet-gepubliceerd dossier, Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.