‘Equid sunt aliud, quam breve gaudium?’ Or in translation, ‘What are these other than a brief joy?’ The viewer of this still life is asked to ponder this philosophical question. All the objects in this painting allude to the transience of earthly things. The skull and the thighbone beside it signify death. The fly on the forehead stands for the persistence with which death pursues us. The books refer to the inadequacy of human knowledge. Flowers are symbolic of the brevity of life, since they bloom for such a short time. The valuable exotic shell, the pearls and the coins are reminders that earthly riches are vain in the face of death.
But there is a ray of light in the darkness, as the French proverb written on the paper protruding from the book tells us – ‘mourir pour vivre’, die to live, a reference to life after death, the only life that is worthwhile. The butterfly is also an allusion to this hopeful prospect: the butterfly lived as a caterpillar, to become a butterfly. Thus the human spirit, when it leaves this earthly life, will find salvation.