How does a still image represent the flow of time? How do you tell a story with a single image? How do you bring to life a biblical, historical, or mythological event from a time distant from the viewer’s? Faced with these dilemmas, artists have explored various ways to address the issue of temporality in their work, experimenting with symbols, compositions, and other visual devices.


Fleeting Time

Vanitas, a Latin word for emptiness, refers to a type of painting that captures the effect of fleeting time. To remind the viewer that beauty, wealth, and worldly pleasures demise with time, artists represented flowers and delicacies that are on the verge of decay. Allegories—combinations of symbols and personifications—also communicate through visual riddles the fragility of human life in the face of time.
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Collapse of Time

Narrative paintings often combine scenes from multiple moments of the depicted story, rather than provide a snapshot of a single moment. Visual clues that evoke episodes from before and after the main event are mixed into the scene.
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The Past in the Present, the Present in the Past

Past and present coexist in paintings. Making the past relevant to the contemporary viewer has been a fundamental issue in history painting, and many artists depicted historical figures in contemporary attire to bring the stories to life. Conversely, they made reference to the antiquities when they wished to add authority and glamor to a contemporary scene.
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