Art History 101

A Small Guide to Still Life Symbols

Zuzanna Stańska, Nicole Ganbold 9 January 2022 min Read

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

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

Apples

Floris van Dijck, Still Life with Cheese, c. 1615, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Still Life Symbols: Floris van Dijck, Still Life with Cheese, c. 1615, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

An 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.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526, The Courtauld, London, UK.
Still Life Symbols: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, 1526, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK.

Fruits and Vegetables

Osias Beert, Still life with Artichokes, ca. 1598-1623, Museum of Grenoble, Grenoble, France.
Still Life Symbols: Osias Beert, Still Life with Artichokes, ca. 1598-1623, Museum of Grenoble, Grenoble, France.

Artichokes, asparagus and strawberries were, for their part, symbolic of the fruits of Paradise or Heaven.

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus, 1697, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Still Life Symbols: Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus, 1697, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Birds

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Abundant Still Life with a Parrot, ca. 1655, Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, Austria.
Still Life Symbols: Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Abundant Still Life with a Parrot, ca. 1655, Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, Austria.

Birds, or a pair of birds, represent the resurrection of the soul after death. Also, colorful parrots functioned as an exotic decoration in the composition and informed the viewer of the vast colonial domains that the Dutch Republic owned.

Books

Evert Collier, Vanitas Still Life with a Candlestick, Musical Instruments, Dutch Books, a Writing Set, an Astrological and a Terrestial Globe and an Hourglass, All on a Draped Table, 1662, private collection. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Still Life Symbols: Evert Collier, Vanitas Still Life with a Candlestick, Musical Instruments, Dutch Books, a Writing Set, an Astrological and a Terrestial Globe and an Hourglass, All on a Draped Table, 1662, private collection. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Books are easy: they meant learning or transmitting knowledge. But also, as you can see on this painting, they could document existing written works and indicate additional clues.

Candles

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Lighted Candle, 1627, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.
Still Life Symbols: Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Lighted Candle, 1627, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.

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

Cats

Samuel van Hoogstraten, Still life with a hanging cockerel and a prowling cat, 1669.
Still Life Symbols: Samuel van Hoogstraten, Still Life with a Hanging Cockerel and a Prowling Cat, 1669. Pinterest.

A 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 peaceful and enjoyable company. For centuries cats have been considered mysterious, beautiful, and exotic. On the painting above this cat is depicted as it tries to hunt down this dead cockerel. Cute, isn’t it?

Flowers

Rachel Ruysch, Flower Still Life, ca. 1726, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH, USA.
Still Life Symbols: Rachel Ruysch, Flower Still Life, ca. 1726, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH, USA.

Flowers have been main subjects of many Dutch and Flemish still lifes. 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.

Lemons

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with lemons and olives, 1629, private collection. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
Still Life Symbols: Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Lemons and Olives, 1629, private collection. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

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

Shells

Adriaen Coorte, Shell collection, 1698, private collection.
Still Life Symbols: Adriaen Coorte, Shell Collection, 1698, private collection. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

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

Skulls

Skulls or bones in a painting obviously symbolize mortality. Memento mori! The skull also represents inner contemplation and eternity.

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Still Life Symbols: Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

That’s it for now! We hope that after reading this article you will be able to read some hidden messages in Dutch still lifes that were left by their painters…

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