The vanitas tradition in 17th-century Dutch still-life painting draws inspiration from the Vulgate version of Ecclesiastes 1:2: “Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas” [“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”]. The Latin vanitas means “emptiness” or “futility” and was used to render the Hebrew term hebel, which primarily means “vapor” and refers to that which is fleeting and perishable (Ps. 62:9, 144:4). In this painting, Pieter Claesz, a German-born painter based in Haarlem, depicts human mortality with a skull and bone. The table is cluttered with other items suggesting transience and the futility of human pursuits. Along with an overturned chalice, there is a timepiece, a writer’s quill, and a music manuscript. The smoke is an especially poignant symbol of ephemerality. The impermanence of human existence underscores human dependence on a sovereign and eternal God.
The parable of the good Samaritan, here depicted by the Italian mannerist painter Jacopo Bassano, illustrates generosity and one person’s support for another, devoid of prejudice. In the context of Catholic Venice in the 16th century, Bassano’s work takes the church to task for failing in its obligations to care for the sick and needy.
Jacopo Pontormo painted the Visitation (1514–16) for the Church of the Annunciation in Florence, Italy, where the fresco remains. The scene depicts the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–45). Elizabeth is the first person to confess that Jesus, even in the womb, is “my Lord” (1:43). Pontormo offers a creative depiction of the scene, adding various details to shape the viewer’s interpretation. Unlike the biblical narrative, Pontormo’s fresco is filled with an entourage of characters. In a complex combination of hand gestures, Joseph and Zechariah guide the viewer to the scene. In the upper portion, the painting depicts the sacrifice of Isaac, suggesting a parallel between the faith of Abraham and Mary, united by the common sacrifice of their sons. Flanking Abraham and Isaac are two angels holding Latin inscriptions which apply to both scenes. Translated they read: “S/he [Mary/Abraham] owes him [Isaac/Jesus] to God” and “Nor does he [God] promise in vain.” In Pontormo’s visual interpretation, God’s promise to provide Abraham with offspring finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. A third inscription, “Look favorably Most Excellent God,” on the wall between the two scenes unites the two by invoking divine favor upon both Abraham’s and Mary’s faithfulness. A prophet with a codex bears witness to the event.
In Fra Angelico’s depiction of Christ’s ascension, Mary occupies center stage. A monk at the monastery of San Marco in Florence in the 15th century, Fra Angelico painted the work to decorate the doors of a silver treasury for an oratory to be constructed near the chapel of the Santissima Annunziata in the church of the same name. The 11 apostles, two angels, and Mary are united in a circle in the lower half of the painting. Peter, with his keys, is identifiable at Mary’s right. The top and bottom borders of the composition contain Latin inscriptions on scrolls, citing Psalm 17:11, “And he ascended upon the cloud, and he flew upon the wings of the winds,” and Mark 16:19, “The Lord Jesus, after he had spoken, was taken up into heaven. The ending of Mark.” The painting is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence.