Thursday, January 15, 2009

Homo Bulla Vanitas

The "Dutch Tarot" or Floskaartjes deck includes an allegory of Life, card #2 depicting a small boy blowing bubbles (sometimes with a ship at sea in the background). Homo bulla, the metaphor of man as a beautiful but exquisitely fragile and transient bubble, dates back to the ancients. Varro (116 BC – 27 BC) wrote the following in the first line of the first book of De Re Rustica.

quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex
for if, as they say, man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man

Varro tells us that the symbolism of homo bulla was proverbial in the 1st century BC. The page As Time Goes By notes that "In the sixteenth century, the Dutch philosopher Erasmus reintroduced the Latin expression “Homo bulla” (”man is a bubble”) in his “Adagia”, a collection of sayings published in 1572." The small boy blowing bubbles as an expression of this metaphor had a long and rich life of its own. Below I've collected seven highly varied examples of the motif in different kinds of works from 1588 through 1665, and there are numerous other examples online.

Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblemata cum tetrastichis latinis, 1588.

Transient and vain is everything in our life: everything hangs from the thread of Lachesis. As quickly as the wet swelling of the bubbled water perishes, so the certain hour of death comes to anyone.

Jacques de Gheyn the Elder, Vanitas Still Life, 1603. This image is reminiscent of Philippe de Champaigne's powerful and emblem-like Still-Life with Skull.

The Museum's panel is generally regarded as the earliest known vanitas still life in European painting. Images and texts of the period often compare human existence to a bubble, cut flowers, smoke, and other reminders of life's brevity. Fame and wealth share this fate, as is suggested by the Spanish coins (one of which represents the former Habsburg emperor Charles V and his mother, Joanna of Aragon and Castile). The laughing and weeping philosophers, Democritus and Heraclitus, reflect upon the vanity of human life, which is symbolized further by objects floating in the bubble, such as a wheel of torture, a leper's rattle, a broken glass, and a flaming heart.

Christoffel van Sichem, Homo Bulla, in Nieuwen ieucht spieghel, 1617. This is the only engraving in the New Mirror for Youth which was done by this artist. It appears to be based on an earlier engraving by Hendrick Goltzius, discussed at the end of this post. It is the second example here taken from an emblem book. Note the bubble to the right of the child's right hand. It has the word "Homo" written across it, in case the point wasn't sufficiently obvious.

David Bailly, Self-portrait with Vanitas Symbols, 1651.

In this Vanitas still-life, the border between the two genres of the still-life and the portrait are blurred. On the one hand, there are several portraits (as painting within the painting) forming part of a still-life arrangement on the table. The arrangement includes, among other things, a skull, an extinguished candle, coins, a wine glass on its side, a pocket watch, roses, a pearl necklace, a pipe, books and sculpture. Soap bubbles hover above them as symbols of transience. On the other hand, the entire collection functions as a statement about the young man on the left, whose face displays the typical features of a self-portrait.

Salvator Rosa, L'Umana Fragilita, 1656.

In 1655 a devastating plague swept Naples. Salvator Rosa's son, Rosalvo, his brother, his sister, her husband and five of their children, all died. The transience of human life was a recurring theme in 17th century painting and thought, but for Rosa, in the year he made this painting, the subject had a tragic immediacy. A letter to his friend Ricciardi makes clear the effect this multiple bereavement had upon him: 'This time heaven has struck me in such a way that shows me that all human remedies are useless and the least pain I feel is when I tell you that I weep as I write.'
Emerging from the thick, nocturnal gloom that surrounds the human figures, a huge winged skeleton directs the infant's wrist as he writes: 'Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori' - 'Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, Death a necessity.'

Karel Dujardin, Homo Bulla as Fortune, 1663. This is a very interesting conception, conflating characteristic attributes of Fortune with the Homo Bulla motif, and showing ubi sunt ruins in the background. Because the figure is conflated with Fortuna and appears quite feminine, it may have been intended as a young girl rather than the typical boy.

This is one of the few allegories Dujardin painted. It shows a lifesize young boy in a blue tunic, blowing bubbles. The painting has long been known as an allegory of the vanity of human life. From the sixteenth century on, a small boy blowing bubbles symbolised the brevity of life. The purely allegorical 'homo bulla' (man as a bubble) of the sixteenth century was later transformed in Dutch genre painting into an ordinary boy blowing bubbles.

Jan Steen, The Life of Man, 1665.

The painting shows an ordinary interior with ordinary people, in a straightforward way, not particularly embellished. Yet, in this deceptively natural painting a moral is hiding. This is not a scene casually glimpsed but the presentation of a scene; it is presented, literally, by drawing up a curtain. This drawn-up curtain has a special function: it calls the scene to the viewer's attention: 'now look at this.' What the viewer sees are people, young and old, male and female, drinking and playing and, above all, eating a lot of oysters. As oysters were a conventional aphrodisiac, they became a common sexual symbol - and their abundance gives this picture an unambiguous erotic meaning. But then, almost exactly where in the middle of the curtain is drawn up highest, a young boy is hiding in the attic, blowing bubble; a skull is next to him. The connotation of the skull is clear enough - and so to the contemporary audience, was the boy. He is the illustration of a classic adage: 'homo bulla' - 'man is a bubble.' The inclusion of this symbol of the insignificance of worldly pursuits unavoidably changes the meaning of this painting.

One of the best known examples is from the late 16th century. It is the basis for Christoffel van Sichem's emblem, but it deserves special consideration for the light it may shed on Floskaartjes.

Hendrick Goltzius, Quis evadet?, 1594.

From the sixteenth century on, a small boy blowing bubbles, mostly with a death's head nearby, symbolised the brevity of life. Goltzius's engraving of this motif is inscribed with the words 'quis evadet?' - who evades [death]? The print also bears a caption in Latin that likens the transience of human existence, even a child's, to the fleeting life of smoke or bubble. The purely allegorical 'homo bulla' (man as a bubble) of the sixteenth century was later transformed in Dutch genre painting into an ordinary boy blowing bubbles.

The legend on Goltzius' engraving is revealing:

Flos novus, et verna fragrans argenteus aura
Marcescit subitò, perit, ali, perit illa venustas.
Sic et vita hominum iam nunc nascentibus, cheu,
Instar abit bullæ vanitas elapsa vaporis. -- F.Eisius

This is reminiscent of pseudo-Ausonius' 4th-century gather, maiden, roses:

Collige, virgo, rosas, dum flos novus et nova pubes,
et memor esto aevum sic properare tuum.

The better known English version is from Robert Herrick:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Flos novus. Floskaartjes. In his post to Aeclectic, "Spoonbender" wrote:

If anyone is wondering about what the name means exactly: the only explanation I have come across is that 'flos' would mean 'rough', supposedly because the floskaartjes were printed on rough, cheap paper; and 'kaartjes' means 'little cards' ('kaartje' is the diminutive of 'kaart').

This would suggest "cheap little cards" as the name of the game. It certainly seems appropriate. However, the relationship between the Vanitas genre and flower buds suggests that Floskaartjes might be intended as "little flower cards". That a macabre subject like Floskaartjes' Dance of Death might be referred to as flowers seems a bit perverse today, but youth and fragile beauty have always insinuated age and loss in the contemptu mundi outlook. In any case, although far from certain, it appears that Floskaartjes was created in the 17th Century, which would be perfectly consistent with the popularity of the Homo Bulla motif in Dutch art at that time.

Finally, some 17th-century funerary art including Goltzius' figure and motto. Identified as the tomb of Thomas Bannantyne (d.1625; erected 1638), Edinburgh, this shows three scenes. On the left is Quis Evadet; on the right is Tempus Edax Rerum; dominating the composition is an angel, triumphant over Death, holding the Scriptures and gazing toward Heaven. Ross suggested that the three attributes of the angel represent the three Christian Virtues: the book signifies Faith; the upward gaze Hope; the exposed breast Charity. Rather than Homo Bulla and Father Time being redundant, the contrast of the toddler blowing bubbles and the old man with the scythe and hourglass may suggest yet another traditional vanitas motif, the Ages of Man. Most salient here, however, the pairing mimics Floskaartjes' two trumps, the two sides of morality: transient life and certain death.

11/22/09 P.S. Here is a modern variant from yesterday's comics section.


  1. What an amazing collection of vanitas images, crossing nationalities, art genres and decades. I have created a link to my post on Vanitas paintings, for which I thank you.

    But I also wanted to note one line of yours in particular: "The small boy blowing bubbles as an expression of this metaphor had a long and rich life of its own". I know snails, bugs, rotten fruit, tipped over glasses, skulls, wilted flowers and every other symbol, but I hadn't seen (or perhaps understood) bubbles before.

    Art and Architecture, mainly

  2. Hi, Hels,

    The Homo Bulla notion is indeed an interesting conceptual thread linking writers and artists from an ancient Roman historian through a Dutch humanist in the Renaissance and later emblem books. The transience of life, like a bubble, and the image of a child playing with soap bubbles, makes an appealing memento mori. Even more so when contrasted with a Reaper, as in the Rosa painting, the Bannantyne monument, or where I began the story, the highest-ranking of the Floskaartjes cards.

    Just as the Homo Bulla motif was one aspect of the larger and extremely popular Vanitas genres, they were part of a vastly greater body of art and literature centered around the transience of this life. It has ancient Stoic roots, and was adopted and adapted by Christians throughout the Middle Ages and on into the enlightenment. These included sermons and poems and art and drama, church furnishings, floors, sculptures, frescoes, literature like Boccaccio's Examples of Famous Men or Petrarch's Remedies for Fortune, miniatures in Books of Hours and assorted memento mori including ivory pendants for rosaries, and so on. A pervasive sensibility that we tend to classify as macabre, the term itself taken from the Danse Macabre or Dance of Death that began to decorate cemeteries in the mid-15th century. Here are a couple very nice posts about their use in rosaries.

    Sic transit gloria mundi.

    Best regards,