This type of painting is called a vanitas, after the biblical quotation from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:2): 'Vanitas vanitatum... et omnia vanitas', translated 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'. The books symbolise human knowledge, the musical instruments (a recorder, part of a shawm, a lute) the pleasures of the senses. The Japanese sword and the shell, both collectors' rarities, symbolise wealth. The chronometer and expiring lamp allude to the transience and frailty of human life. All are dominated by the skull, the symbol of death.
Detail from Harmen Steenwyck, 'Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life', about 1640 © The National Gallery, London.
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