On June 20, 1615, Italian Baroque artist Salvator Rosa was born.
The above painting, “The Frailty of Human Life” (1656), was painted soon after the death of his son, Rosalvo.
In the painting, Death (the skeleton) is directing the child to write on a scroll. The scroll reads “Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori”, which means “Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, Death a necessity.”
In 1656, Naples suffered an outbreak of plague*, and young Rosalvo wasn’t the only casualty of it. Salvator’s sister and most of her family, as well as his brother, also died of the plague. In a letter to his friend Ricciardi, Rosa said: “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.”
Ah, the frailty of human life. How we take each day for granted. How we put off telling others how important they are to us, reasoning, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” But all too often, tomorrow is too late. Because the reality is that this life is fleeting. It’s merely a step along the way for what’s to come after death.
Memento Mori means “remember you must die”, and in the 17th century, Memento Mori and Vanitas paintings were popular. These were works that, like the Rosa painting above, were designed to remind the viewer of mortality, the shortness of life, and how worthless the pleasures of this life are in the end.
Ecclesiastes 1:2 says, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The NIV substitutes the word “vanity” for “meaningless” which further helps drive home the point: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
During this period of history, people seemed to become a little more aware of death, and once again began thinking seriously about what might come next; pondering the very real possibility that this life is simply a preparation for the next.
Rosa’s dark, dramatic painting is a poignant reminder to all who view it — life is fragile. The only guarantee we have in life… is death.
Or is it?
Death may be a guarantee, but in Jesus we have something much more powerful than death could ever wish to be. Hope. In Jesus, we have hope. Hope that there is something in the next life. Hope that death is not the end. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:50 that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” So we all have to die first, to shed these imperfect mortal bodies; to put aside all the meaningless vanities that life has to offer here and now, and put our focus and our hope in Jesus and what’s waiting for us on the other side.
The frailty of human life is a reality. But so is the power of God.
Some people live for the here and now, reaping their reward in this life, thinking it’s all that they get, so it’s all that matters. But in 70, 80, maybe even 100 years, the body will fail. It will shrivel up and die. And no one will even remember you existed.
But others look for a reward that’s so much better than any of the meaningless accolades we can accumulate here.
Because death is not the end.
It’s only the beginning.
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” ~ Ecclesiastes 1:9-11
Vanity of vanities… all is vanity.
*The plague that swept through Naples from 1656 to 1658 wiped out nearly half the population. Over the years, skeletal remains have been examined and tested from a number of known “plague” sites across Europe. Several studies have confirmed that the pathogen Y. pestis (Yersinia pestis), which was the cause of “The Plague” aka The Black Death (which killed close to 50 million people in the 14th century), was the same bacteria that caused the Naples plague.