Still Life with Clock and Crucifix / by Neal Auch


They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. — John 19:17

This new still life composition is, perhaps, a bit off season. Easter would have been a better time to be displaying a vanitas style image that references the crucifixion. That being said, the themes of mortality and transience that undergird this composition are fairly universal — both in my work but also in the human condition — so I feel like it still makes sense to share the piece.

Vanitas still lifes frequently employ visual metaphors that make reference to the passage of time. The candle is one obvious example, because the melted wax keeps track of the hour while the smoke from an extinguished flame is a clear reminder of death. Flowers, fruit and meat serve a similar purpose, of course, because these items and the pleasure that they bring will soon disappear. The clock is yet another (not particular subtle) motif that reminds the viewer of the passage of time and, in doing so, becomes a symbol of transience and mortality.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is my first time incorporating a clock into my own still life work. Here I decided to blend the clock with some religious iconography. The memento mori meaning of the clock in this composition is reinforced by the placement of the crucifix, which has been arranged to act as a kind of mirror image to the timepiece. Note that time on the clock has been set to 3pm. This corresponds to the (approximate) time of Christ’s death. (The only Gospel writer to make note of the time of day of Christ’s death is Mark, who states that Jesus endured the torment of crucifixion for about 6 hours from the third hour — roughly 9am in modern parlance — putting his time of death at about 3pm.)

The last item in this still life that I haven’t discussed yet is the music box that the crucifix rests upon. The music box is, for me, a stand-in for the role that a lute with broken strings might play in a more classical composition; typically this would symbolize death and discord.

I’ve already spoken at length about the metaphorical content of this image. From a purely aesthetic perspective the guiding principle behind this piece is the mirroring of the two key focal points (the clock and the cross). This mirroring of composition is, in turn, mirrored in the colour palate by the contrasting of the red tones in the clock frame, music box, crucifix and fresh pig intestines on the left against the white of the clock’s face and the rotting pig intestines spilling out on the right of the image.