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English - Death and desire

A lesson from 17th-century art on the fleeting nature of life

A lesson from 17th-century art on the fleeting nature of life

Most of us, at some point, will have been dismayed by teenagers' materialism, fascination with celebrity and apparent lack of urgency. But Death: A self-portrait, a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, encourages pupils to stand back from their everyday lives and reflect on the ideas that enthralled people in the past. In the 17th century it was not the glamorous lives of the famous but a curiosity about death that occupied people's minds, according to the collection's displays.

The exhibition of 300 objects begins with Adriaen van Utrecht's 1643 painting Vanitas: Still life with a bouquet and skull. This is an ideal starting point for interesting pupils in historical and philosophical discoveries.

Perhaps start by asking them to discuss the Latin phrase from Ecclesiastes: "vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas" ("vanity of vanities, all is vanity"). What could this statement mean? Is everything vanity? Or is there more to the journey through life than this?

Then encourage pupils to look closely at the objects in the painting. See how many they can identify and what qualities they think they may represent.

What objects directly suggest death, fragility or decay? The central skull is the clearest illustration of these themes but there are others for pupils to find: the partially hidden hour-glass, the dropping stems and "blown" roses and the wreath around the skull, a kind of mock laurel that suggests the ultimate emptiness of a life spent seeking only fame.

But many of the objects in the painting also represent life's achievements and pleasures. Roses remind us of love and sexual desire. The tobacco is a trade commodity symbolising a lifetime of work and also the source of smoke, a reminder of man's impermanence. Jewels and flowers drooping and dangling over the table edge express the fragility of life: the smallest movement could break the jewels and while the flowers are colourful and appear full of life, we know they will soon wither and die.

But the image can spark more than a simple debate about our journey through life, love and death. Pupils should also consider how society has evolved. In the 17th century, prints of Utrecht's painting were a fashionable decoration in the homes of many Flemish aristocrats. What pleasure might they have found in displaying such a picture? Can pupils imagine it hanging in their homes now? What has changed over the past 370 years to make us consider the image to be an odd one to have on show? Do pupils have paintings or pictures in their homes today, or are their images confined to albums on Facebook? And what, you could have them ponder, do they think people might choose to reflect their lives 370 years from today.

What else?

Explore the concept of home in this literacy lesson from Denver Art Museum.


Discover what Shakespeare had to say about the seven ages of man with a PowerPoint from aspling.


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