Tarot in Art | Vanitas | Sebastien Bonnecroy

Published by Alison Cross on

St James of Morrison once said, ‘No one gets out of here alive,*’ and he was quite right, of course.  Since 17th century Dutch painters didn’t have The Doors as a reference point, they created Vanitas paintings – the purpose of which was to remind us, basically, that no one gets out of here alive.

This particular painting, attributed to Flanders-based French artist Sebastien Bonnecroy, features the usuals suspects – a hollow-eyed skull (to remind us of our mortality) surrounded by temporary things – the cupboard decorated by a skeleton holding an hour glass, the candle that burns down, the pipe that breaks, the clock that ticks out the hours of our lives (I actually typed ‘cock’), and a whole load of other symbols that trumpet the painting’s purpose:  YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.

Holding the thought that your end was looming at the end of any given sneeze… or pustulant boil, people would then gaze blearily upon their Vanitas paintings and rush out into the world to do good works and lead spiritual lives.  Also, infect people.

In this particular oil painting,  nestled in the middle of the arrangement of symbols is a set of Tarot cards.  The inclusion of Tarot cards may show the fleeting pleasure of gaming, alongside the fleeting pleasure of music (as shown by the musical instruments)…or does it indicate that by the time this painting was produced, 1663-ish people WERE using Tarot for divination and the exploration of our fates?

The painting was in auction at Christies in 2009 for an estimate of Β£10,000 – Β£15,000, but I’ll be danged if I can see what it actually DID sell for.

What do you think – gaming or divination?!

* Five To One, Waiting for the Sun (1968)

Update – appears to have been sold for $58,941

Alison Cross

The Tarot's Court Cards are my specialist area.Β  They talk to me. Not LITERALLY though ....


Maggie Lukowski · 19th July 2014 at 12:01 pm

Maybe both – no one lived to tell the story!

Inner Whispers · 18th July 2014 at 4:33 pm

Hmm, I'd say both gaming and divination are possible. After all, thinking about destiny is also pretty "veritas" material…

Ania · 17th July 2014 at 7:22 pm

I think both. Cards had already been used for fortune-telling some considerable time before 1663. The Fortune-Teller was painted in 1510(ish) πŸ™‚

Joanne Sprott · 17th July 2014 at 11:53 am

A vote for gaming at this point, myself. If it were a century later, I might think differently, but the theme of temporary amusements (music and drink, etc.) makes me think gaming.

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