Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

English - Death and Desire: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

English - Death and Desire: Resources

Article excerpt

A lesson from 17th-century art on the fleeting nature of life.

Most of us, at some point, will have been dismayed by teenagers' materialism, fascination with celebrity and apparent lack of urgency. But Death: A self-portrait, a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, encourages pupils to stand back from their everyday lives and reflect on the ideas that enthralled people in the past. In the 17th century it was not the glamorous lives of the famous but a curiosity about death that occupied people's minds, according to the collection's displays.

The exhibition of 300 objects begins with Adriaen van Utrecht's 1643 painting Vanitas: Still life with a bouquet and skull. This is an ideal starting point for interesting pupils in historical and philosophical discoveries.

Perhaps start by asking them to discuss the Latin phrase from Ecclesiastes: "vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas" ("vanity of vanities, all is vanity"). What could this statement mean? Is everything vanity? Or is there more to the journey through life than this?

Then encourage pupils to look closely at the objects in the painting. See how many they can identify and what qualities they think they may represent.

What objects directly suggest death, fragility or decay? The central skull is the clearest illustration of these themes but there are others for pupils to find: the partially hidden hour-glass, the dropping stems and "blown" roses and the wreath around the skull, a kind of mock laurel that suggests the ultimate emptiness of a life spent seeking only fame. …

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