Wednesday, May 03, 2006

(27) vanitas

The key to decoding El Jardín de las Delicias/The Garden of Delights is not identical with its subject. The key is a Nahuatl language chronology that establishes the date of the triptych, and the subject is vanitas (as in Ecclesiastes 1:2, vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas), shown here in a seventeenth century painting. The example shown here is from the Charles Roelofsz collection. The key is more unfamiliar than art historians have expected, and the vanitas theme seems to have been almost too familiar to see. José de Siguenza hinted at it when he said the subject of the triptych was madroños.
This is not to say that the triptych was devised as a riddle with its date as the answer. When it was first painted it was probably obvious that it was new, and the people who first saw it may have seen Nahuatl chronologies, the Dresden Codex, and other things from the New World. Other keys to the vanitas subject include the star maps illustrated below, alchemical images, and the triptych format, which art historians have tended to regard incorrectly as mutually exclusive.


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