Way back in September, I wrote a post about vanitas art. At the end, I promised a post on one particular theme in vanitas art, which is a favorite: bubbles. I mean, who doesn’t love bubbles. But, what do these soapy, opalescent orbs have to do with death?
Quite simply, there is probably no object more ephemeral and temporary than a soap bubble. Bubbles are simply thin layers of water sandwiched between layers of soap molecules with trapped air inside. Bubbles usually can only exist for a matter of seconds due to evaporation, and even less if the surface comes into contact with any other surface. We try to catch them, capture them, keep them in our hand, but that just more quickly destroys them.
And why are we so fascinated and captivated by them? Isn’t it because we know they can’t be captured? Is knowing that these bubbles won’t last what makes them so appealing to us? And aren’t they beautiful? The way they capture all the colors of the spectrum and the scenes around them as they flit by.
In these ways, bubbles exemplify our mortal lives. We are temporary. We are fragile. We can die sometimes when we encounter other people or objects; violence, accidents, disasters. But, even if we manage to avoid all contact with outside forces, we would still die due to the evaporation of time. Chasing immortality, trying to capture, halt and reverse our physical decline is as useless as trying to capture a bubble on our hand. And our mortality in relation to the infinite time and space of the universe is mere seconds.
And we are also as beautiful and captivating as bubbles. We know our fellow humans and we do not have long to be on this earth. That scarcity and ephemeral nature are what drives us to live, to love, to be. The way we reflect back to the world the colors of life and the scenes of our existence is what makes each and every one of us as unique and as beautiful as a bubble.
And, let’s face it. Bubbles are fun. Blowing them. Chasing them. Watching others chase them. Watching where they land for that split second. Watching them roll and spin and merge with their brothers for a brief second. It a simple joy that we learn to appreciate as tiny children. Even animals are captivated by them.
The Latin phrase of “homo bulla est” translates as: “Man is but a bubble.” And like memento mori and vanitas, homo bulla became an oft-occurring theme in visual arts. Starting in Holland and Central Europe in the middle of the 16th century artists began to incorporate bubbles into their still life vanitas art. In these still lifes, the bubble just became another of the many objects depicted that represented the fleeting nature of life. Often, the bubble was simply floating in the background with no indication of how it came to be or of its creator.
Instead of depicting lone bubbles with no makers, many artists depicted “putti,” cherubs or baby angels, and children as the blower of bubbles. These depictions seem to reinforce the idea that there is joy and youth in those bubbles. At the same time, it illustrates how those children are seemingly unaware of the fleeting nature of that joy, that youth, indeed, their lives. But, we aren’t children. We see the skulls and other memento mori they are cavorting around. We understand.
We suffer little discomfort or dissonance seeing chunky cherubs frolicking with bubbles and pipes. Kids, even angelic ones, and bubbles go together like peanut butter and jelly – cute and comforting. Of course, having them sitting or crawling on skulls is a little jarring, which is the artist’s point. If removing the angelic cherubs in still life and vanitas makes things a bit less comfortable, what happens when you remove all the angels and all the rest of the detritus, and you’re left with just bubbles and death?
Leinberger has decorated the ceilings of Michaelsberg Abbey with different images of Death, anthropomorphized as a skeleton, setting aside the tools of his job to partake in some simple human experiences. Here, Death sets his shovel aside to blow some bubbles. After all, Death is long and dying can be hard work. Likewise, so is life. We have to set aside our daily burdens and take some time to enjoy some simple joys.
Death here reminds us that we are finite and fragile. We are beautiful and bring joy to others. And Death isn’t scary. Depictions of dogs, children and cherubs blowing bubbles can bring us comfort, so, too, can the depiction of death blowing bubbles. Death doesn’t want us to be afraid. Death is necessary because we are alive and beautiful and ephemeral.
I love this image. So much so, I recreated it as a tattoo. I found it years ago while researching death doulas, and I feel it so perfectly encapsulates what I do and why I do it. I want to bring death out into the light. I want to help people find comfort, beauty and even joy at the end of life and in death.
Bubbles and death. It’s as if Death is asking us, “Why so serious?” While researching homo bulla I found a writer who encapsulated it well: “What does the brevity of existence have to do with such shared giddiness and glee? And anyway, who takes the bubble so seriously?” – Alex Kalamaroff