Connect with us – Art History Stories

A Small Guide To Still Life Symbols (Part 2)


A Small Guide To Still Life Symbols (Part 2)

This is the second part of our article about the symbols in 16th and 17th century still lifes from the Netherlands. Read the first part here.

So, we are back with our small guide to still life symbols. Let’s continue!

Adriaen van Utrecht - Vanitas, composition with flowers and skull, 1642, private collection

Adriaen van Utrecht – Vanitas, composition with flowers and skull, 1642, private collection

Ivy, as an evergreen symbolizes eternal life.

Lemons were very expensive back them. Therefore, it was a very popular item to depict, especially peeled. Lemons are so sour and bitter so they symbolizes the deceptive allure or attraction of earthly beauty.

The Lute with broken strings means death or discord.

Mirror: stands for truth or vanity.  By showing an image of a subject that reflect what others see.  This self awareness allows fruitful introspection and the viewers attempt to find the truth, or lead to simple vanity.

The mouse, being a very fertile animal, became a symbol of lechery and destruction.

The peach symbolizes truth and salvation, and is used as a replacement to the maligned apple

Shells, in a religious work, represent pilgrimages, or saints (It is a symbol of st. James, the patron of pilgrims).  The clam symbolizes the Virgin Mary.

Skulls or bones, when in the painting, obviously symbolize mortality. Memento Mori! The skull also represents inner contemplation, and eternity.

The sword symbolizes power, protection, authority, strength, courage.  It is phallic, (with the sheath representing the female reproductive parts) and many paintings with soldiers, swords and women in the painting had the sexual overtones within their meaning.

Artists during the Renaissance era also used things like monkeys, parrots and other birds, and cats.  The parrot, the birds, and the cat – like the monkey – personify specifically human failings.  The monkey represents chaos.  They also symbolize man entrapped by earthly and sensual desires.  Fun Fact: when the monkey is depicted holding an apple, it represented the fall of man.

Find out more:


Art Historian, huge fan of Giorgione and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Founder and CEO of and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.


More in Symbols

To Top