Vanitas Still Life,
Painted by Herman Henstenburgh (1667-1726),
Watercolour, gouache, and gum arabic on parchment
© Metropolitan Museum, New York
All Souls' Day
Jesus exclaimed, ‘I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’
Reflection on the gouache on paper
It is highly likely that we have all lost some friends or family over the past year. Today is a day where we pray for all of them. Even though they passed away, we still love them. And as Christians we can express our love for them through prayer. We know that so many of our friends and family members were good people. But we also know that they were people. They made mistakes and had shortcomings, hence we pray for them today.
As Catholics, we believe that when we die our souls can go to three places: heaven, hell or purgatory. Souls who go to heaven, are those who died in a state of perfect grace and communion with God. Hell is where the souls end up if people died in a state of mortal sin. The middle place, so to speak, where our souls may go is purgatory. It is thought that that is where most people, free of mortal sin, but still in a state of lesser sin, probably end up. Purgatory is thus a place where the souls can be 'purged' and cleansed before they are invited into Heaven (see Catechism of the Catholic Church nr. 1030). Our prayers today can directly help these souls. Precisely how our prayers for the dead help them to attain Heaven is deeply mysterious, but we believe that it does have a beneficial effect.
Life is indeed transient. Before we know it, we leave these earthly shores. This very thought led to a whole style of genre paintings, emerging in the 17th century. At a time of great mercantile wealth and military conflicts in Europe, paintings and drawings were made to remind the viewer of the transience of life. These vanitas paintings were filled with symbolic references. Our highly detailed watercolour on paper by Dutch artist Herman Henstenburgh depicts music sheets (giving the earthly pleasure of listening and the ephemerality of human existence), a flute (whose sounds would seduce people), a blown-out candle, a knocked-over hourglass, and blossoming flowers, all surrounding a skull. No matter how much we surround ourselves with earthly delights and excitement, we will all end up like the skull in our painting.
But today, on All Souls, we are called to remember those who have died, especially those who have died in the past year. We pray for their joyful reunion with our Loving Creator.
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