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A Small Guide To Still Life Symbols (Part 1)


A Small Guide To Still Life Symbols (Part 1)

You may think that all those marvellous Dutch still lifes from the 16th and 17th century were just some random sets of fruits, vegetables and sculls. But guess what, they all had their hidden meaning! The still life painting allowed artists to send these extra messages and had been used for many years.

Most of those allegories were the representations of the brevity of life, decay and finally death. Ready to get to know what all this stuff means?

Willem Claesz Heda , Still Life with a Pie, Wine, Beer and Nuts, 1637, National Museum in Warsaw

Dessert (Vanitas). Willem Claesz. Heda, 1637 National Museum in Warsaw

The apple has many meanings. It can signify love, knowledge, wisdom, joy, and death. In religious works it usually means temptation, and original sin. The apple is also associated with a woman’s anatomy, breasts in particular, and then the core of the halved apple representing her sexuality.

Artichokes, asparagus and strawberries were, for their part, symbolic of the fruits of Paradise or Heaven. In case you missed it, we have once written an article about asparagus in art. (Why? Because we can!)

The bee, as well as the butterfly, are symbols of hope, and are a reminder to the fragility of life.

Birds, or a pair of birds represent the resurrection of the soul after death.

Books are easy, they meant learning or of transmitting knowledge.

The candle also has lots of meanings.  It can indicate the passing of time, faith in God (when it’s burning).  When extinguished, it means death, or the loss of virginity, and the corruption of matter. It can symbolize light in darkness of a lonely individual, or the light of Christ, purification or cleansing.

The cat: usually meant illicit love. In medieval times the cat represented lust and prostitution. But in later paintings it was included as a provider of a peaceful and enjoyable company. For centuries cats are considered mysterious, beautiful, and exotic.

The clock means the passing of time.

Feathers symbolize the virtues of hope, faith, and charity (in religious works), and they represent freedom (by enabling flight) and the heavens.

Flowers have long been included as a still life subject. Different flowers hold different meanings.  They can symbolize innocence, the four seasons, or religious symbols.  The rose for instance, stands for love, the lily for purity, and the sunflower for devotion. This is a subject for another article as it is huuuge.


To Be Continued soon!

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Art Historian, founder and CEO of DailyArtMagazine.com and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.


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