In 1524, German Renaissance painter Barthel Bruyn the Elder completed a bridal portrait depicting an attractive young woman, Margaretha von Mochau, offering a single carnation to her new husband—a symbol of love and devotion. The painting is technically sound but, taken on its own, somewhat unremarkable. This work was probably commissioned, either by Margaretha von Mochau or her husband, to commemorate the happy occasion of their marriage. In essence, what we are looking at here is the sixteenth-century equivalent of wedding photography and—as with contemporary wedding photos—the work has limited value for anyone except its subject.
What is considerably more interesting than Margaretha von Mochau’s bridal portrait is the grim scene that Bruyn chose to paint on the reverse of the canvas. There, we find a human skull resting on a shelf in a recessed niche. The jaw is unhinged and many teeth have gone missing, perhaps suggesting that the ravages of time persist even after death. On a ledge beneath the skull, there is a single candle, its wick glowing faintly as if it were extinguished just moments ago. Finally, on the opposite side of the niche, we have a piece of paper bearing a motto that leaves no room for ambiguity in the artist’s intentions. “Everything passes with death,” the text assures us. “Death is the ultimate limit of everything.” The message Bruyn is sending to the new bride is very clear: you might be young and beautiful and happy now, but those days are numbered. This grim image is an early example of Vanitas painting—a symbolic work meant to emphasize the certainty of death and the futility of earthly pleasures. Both literally and metaphorically, Bruyn’s Vanitas is the exact opposite of a bridal portrait.
Bruyn’s painting is among the earliest examples of still life; at the time, images like these might occasionally adorn the back of more “respectable” artistic works such as portraiture, but they were not yet widely seen as something to be purchased and enjoyed on their own merits. Although Bruyn’s Vanitas anticipates a number of developments in the art world, it is not a stand-alone work, and the philosophical meaning of this image cannot be disentangled from the charming bridal portrait on the other side of the canvas.
In the decades that followed, still life would come into its own as a genre of painting and images like Bruyn’s grim arrangement would explode in popularity in many parts of Europe, most notably in the Netherlands. While not every example of the genre is as macabre and heavy-handed as Bruyn’s Vanitas, the central themes of death, decay, and transience are never far below the surface. Those seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of tulips might seem quaint to us now, but viewers at the time would have understood the implication that life, like the beauty of the flowers, does not last very long. This connection is made explicit in the book of Job. “Man, who is born of woman, is short of days and full of trouble,” we are told. “Like a flower he comes forth, then withers away.”
Having immersed myself in still life for the better part of a decade now, I find that this way of thinking follows me even outside the art world. Increasingly, I am inclined to see the grand tragedy of the human condition reflected back to me in the most quotidian things. One day, during lockdown, an elderly neighbor plucked a tulip from her garden and gifted it to my young daughter. We carried this treasure home and set it in a beer glass on the window sill. And, over the coming days, we watched it wither and die. Some insect, presumably lured by the scent of the flower, fell into the glass and drowned there. If the scene had been rendered in oil paint, it would be tempting to read it as a meditation on the transience of beauty. Is the interpretation any less valid if the scene has not been staged?
These were days when the subject of death was never far from my mind. The COVID-19 virus and its attendant threat were all we talked about. On the news every morning, they counted the dead, updated the figures, presented us with charts and graphs and statistics. Over dinner, on the chattering screen, we watched drone footage of corpses being buried in a mass grave somewhere—men in hazmat suits standing around while backhoes pushed dirt over the bodies.
My father was dying, also. He spent his final weeks in confusion and agony, cursing and struggling against the restraints that bound him to his bed, uncertain of what was happening and unable to recognize loved ones.
The tulip in the beer glass shed its petals; I tossed both the flower and the drowned insect into the rubbish bin while my daughter was asleep.
My father died in a hospital bed, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
Everything passes with death.
Death is the ultimate limit of everything.
There’s another element in Bruyn’s Vanitas that I omitted from my initial description: the housefly. For Bruyn, the fly was almost certainly meant to represent death—metaphorically no different from the skull upon which it is perched. To me, though, Bruyn’s housefly is conspicuous for being the only sign of life in the painting. Flies feed on death; they lay their eggs in dead flesh; there is a sense in which flies might represent the possibility of rebirth and renewal in the face of death and decay and ruin. As I read Bruyn’s Vanitas, there is perhaps a faint glimmer of hope contained within the housefly. Death might be the ultimate limit of everything, but there is always the possibility for new life to emerge from the remains of the old.
In seventeenth-century still life paintings, butterflies are typically associated with divinity and rebirth, because the metamorphosis from caterpillar into butterfly is thought to echo the resurrection of Christ. But the life cycle of the housefly is no different. Why don’t we regard the transformation from maggot to fly with equal wonder? It seems to me that the distinction is purely aesthetic: we don’t elevate the housefly to a symbol of rebirth simply because we find its eating habits disgusting and its appearance grotesque. Perhaps, if we could bring ourselves to find the beauty in this lowly thing, we might recognize the element of hope that Bruyn’s Vanitas hides in plain sight.
In the series of compositions that accompany this essay I have appropriated the key elements of Bruyn’s Vanitas: bones, insects, and extinguished candles. These images are intended as an homage to the master but, at the same time, they represent my own attempt to grapple with the meaning of Bruyn’s housefly.
In several images I have conspicuously swapped the fly for the discarded carapace of a cicada. This choice is meant to emphasize the glimmer of hope that I find implicit in Bruyn’s work; in art, cicadas are often used to represent personal change and transformation. The cicada spends years living in darkness before it emerges, triumphant and fully realized in its adult form. And when the cicada finally emerges from its burrow it comes forth singing—a shrill, droning song that seems impossibly loud for such a tiny creature. The cicada shells in these images are not associated with the creature’s death but, rather, are something that it casts off in the realization of its full potential.
In other images I have chosen, instead, to replace Bruyn’s housefly with dead wasps or flies—a creative choice that intentionally strips away any chance of interpreting the insect as a hopeful symbol. In some images, I have included both the dead insects and the cicada shells, intentionally making the messaging ambiguous to emphasize my own contradictory feelings on the subject.
I was asked to deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral. This was not something I was particularly enthusiastic about—at the time, my anxiety disorder was as bad as it’s ever been, and the idea of public speaking, even for a small audience, felt overwhelming. Nevertheless, I agreed; there was no one else in my family willing to do the job, and I couldn’t bear to leave it to a stranger. So, with my hands tucked behind the lectern to conceal their trembling, I shared my story to the small room full of mourners and to the urn that housed my father’s ashes. The story I shared was a small moment from my childhood, a memory of walking with my father along a beach in Eastern Canada as the tide was rolling in, swallowing up the sand and threatening to close off our passage back to the safety of home. It was a small and ultimately inconsequential moment; nothing more than a casual stroll on a beach near dusk. But at the time, it had felt like some grand adventure—a hero’s journey. It felt exciting and important to my young mind because my father had made it feel that way, because he had a gift for constructing fun and excitement from even the most quotidian events.
Toward the end of my eulogy, I talked about my relationship with my daughter, about how I aspire to incorporate this sense of playfulness and mythmaking into my own parenting. I wanted to argue that this is the way that we carry our loved ones forward with us, even after their death. This was a very dark time for me, and I desperately wanted to find a perspective where there was something to be hopeful about in life. I wanted to believe that there is something that doesn’t die, something that is carried forward to the next generation, something of value that can emerge even in a world of ruin and death and decay.
I didn’t realize it at the time that I was writing my father’s eulogy, but I was channeling Bruyn’s housefly. I was trying to find the faint glimmer of hope hiding in plain sight. I was trying to argue—perhaps in vain—with the notion that death is the ultimate limit of everything.
The still life compositions that accompany this essay are a continuation of that thought process, an attempt to wrestle with my own contradictory thoughts on Bruyn’s housefly, on my father’s death, and on the possibility of rebirth and renewal. I do not know if I truly believe that Bruyn’s housefly can meaningfully be construed as a hopeful symbol, nor do I know if the assortment of scavenged insect remains in my own compositions can meaningfully offer a message of hope either, but I want to believe that they can.
Neal Auch has spent the last few years using photography and prose to explore the unlikely beauty of death, decay, and ruin. His images draw considerably from 17th-century Dutch still life paintings and they have been exhibited in galleries, published in fine art books, and adorned the covers of horror novels. Neal is a self-taught artist whose practice is informed by an eclectic background that encompasses experimental music, transgressive literature, and theoretical physics. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with an unreasonably accommodating partner and a bloated collection of dead things. You can find Neal at www.nealauch.com.