The heart of ‘The Art of Facing Mortality’ is the canvas reverse side of a painting from 1670, by the Antwerp artist Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts. What was Gijsbrecht’s intention with the painting, other than displaying his virtuosity? Jaap Goudsmit convincingly argues that Gijsbrecht teaches us that death becomes ever more predominant with advancing years. The imagined front of the painting depicts the journey of discovery of the life and the time we spend in the awareness of our mortality – vanitas, a favourite subject of Gijsbrecht’s –, the back depicts the inevitable end.
In ‘The Art of Facing Mortality’ Goudsmit discusses, from the perspective of the scientist and drawing from literature, highlights of Western art that tell us about life and death. Mantegna, Carracci, Holbein, Ensor and many others are addressed in a book that is designed as a catalogue of a virtual exhibition.
‘The Art of Facing Mortality’ is a book about art, about literature, about philosophy. With the message: if we are vaguely aware of our mortality – and we usually are – then we also realise that we are alive. And we have to make the most of this life, in the hope that it will be long enough to achieve the goals we set ourselves.