By tapping into the iconography of a category of seventeenth-century still-life paintings, Poe has given us a “vanitas trilogy”—“King Pest,” “Amontillado,” and “The Masque of the Red Death,” this latter being the most notable literary version of that visual arts genre. An examination of the iconography in three classic paintings demonstrates that “Masque” has much in common with the vanitas genre—for example, a profusion of pleasurable items appealing to the voluptuary, the jarring collocation of death imagery amid these pleasurable objects, images of clocks representing the passing of time, the motif of music symbolizing the transient, the use of somber colors (the black room of Prospero's imperial suite) to suggest the apocalyptic, the notion of the wealthy and powerful being brought low by death, the theme of weaponry incapable of fending off this leveler, the concept of extinguished flames connoting the ease with which life expires, and biblical language and imagery echoing the moralistic Latin messages sometimes featured in the paintings. When the “Masque” narrator refers to the “assembly of phantasms such as I have painted,” Poe gives us a further clue that he was thinking about the vanitas productions of the Dutch Golden Age. As a prose-painter of a vanitas trilogy and a critic who despised the blatantly moralistic in art, however, Poe should be related to the less obviously didactic vanitas artists who preferred their didacticism wrapped up in disguised symbolism, hidden allegories—which method correlates precisely with Poe's own literary techniques and critical prescriptions.

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