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vanitas

in art, a genre of still-life painting that flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. A vanitas painting contains collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience and vanity of earthly achievements and pleasures; it exhorts the viewer to consider mortality and to repent. The vanitas evolved from simple pictures of skulls and other symbols of death and transience frequently painted on the reverse sides of portraits during the late Renaissance. It had acquired an independent status by c. 1550 and by 1620 had become a popular genre. Its development until its decline about 1650 was centred in Leiden, in the United Provinces of the Netherlands, an important seat of Calvinism, which emphasized humanity's total depravity and advanced a rigid moral code.

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Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
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