Hans Baldung Grien - The Three Ages and Death

by Alexandra Tuschka


A beautiful woman looks at herself in the mirror devoutly and obliviously. She does not notice that death is already holding the running hourglass above her head, thus recalling a main medieval idea: nothing is eternal, everything is transient. The word "vanitas", which denotes symbols of transience, also stands for the "vanity", which is pictured here in the woman.

"The three ages and death" is the title that describes this work, assuming that the small child at the bottom of the picture, the young woman and the old woman from the left are each supposed to represent one of the ages. It could also represent one and the same person in different ages. With this simultaneous representation Grien would have remained connected to the medieval formal language. The transparent veil that Death holds in his hand could also stand for time, which no human being can escape. Possibly, however, Cupid is meant at the bottom left, because the apple lying next to the child refers to the Fall of Man and the woman's seductive powers.


Death as personification occupies a large part of the picture and is depicted very present. He is not a skeleton or grim reaper here, but a decaying body that still has quite full hair and a few flaps of skin hanging down its body. His admonition is also related to a devaluation of the protagonist's apparent vanity. For he who loses himself in the material world and clings to what is transient commits a sin in the understanding of the time. It was not for nothing that "vanity" was the leader of the 7 deadly sins, since it was believed to intensify all other sins.

Grien was a student of Dürer and became known mainly for his graphics, which expressed the humanistic age: Carnality, familiarity with the human body, affects, individuality. Beauty and death are one of his main themes and appear repeatedly in the ouevre.


Hans Baldung Grien - The Three Ages and Death

Oil on canvas, 1510, 48 x 32,5, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna