Table of contents:

ABC of still life: What do the encrypted symbols mean?
ABC of still life: What do the encrypted symbols mean?

As absurd as it sounds, still life has a lot in common with the modern demands of Instagram photography: both should look perfect and preferably with a touch of sincerity. The art of still life was also not very highly valued and was often done as decoration rather than artistic painting. For most modern art lovers, still life fantasies stop at external contemplation. But what if the glass of wine on the table has a secret meaning? Does a butterfly on flowers carry a deep religious message? To reveal the true essence of a still life, it is important to decipher the secret language of its symbols.

When still life painting began, it began with flowers (and each type of flower had its own meaning) or with kitchen items laid out on the table. They were called not still life, but rather fruits or flowers. Then parts of the breakfast, then a still life of the banquet.

Vanitas (Latin for vanity) are paintings with a moral message. They remind the viewer of death, the fragility of human life and the brevity of our existence. The artist would use objects such as a skull, a clock, a lighted candle to represent the passage of time. Books, musical instruments (very expensive things during this period) serve as a warning about the futility of worldly pursuits.

Other popular themes that artists concentrated on were paintings of agricultural and labor products. Harvests from the sea were also used, especially by Flemish craftsmen due to their close proximity to the sea and varied trade. Typically, when fresh produce is used, still life symbolism signifies abundance, wealth and generosity of the upper class. When food is depicted as decaying, it demonstrates futility and possible death.


Triangle in the form of a pyramid facing upwards, is the sign of the Holy Spirit or Trinity in Christian symbolism.Downward triangle - a very ancient symbol of femininity and earth with her feminine qualities (mother earth).

Flowers and Plants

Still lifes: Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder and Jan van Os

the Rose is the flower of Venus, a symbol of love.Rose with thorns - the suffering of the Virgin Mary. Lily - purity. Lily can also represent the Virgin Mary.Sunflower - a symbol of devotion.Ivyas evergreen, symbolizes eternal life.Tulip is a favorite collectible in the Netherlands in the 17th century. A symbol of insanity, irresponsible and unreasonable attitude, given by God.Poppy is a flower that produces opium - a symbol of mortal sin and laziness.Violets - modesty.Withered flowers - the inevitable mortality of human nature. Decaying flowers were often included in works with a variety of rich objects that depicted wealth in order to contrast the beauty of wealth with the inevitability of death.Sunflower - devotionSprouts of grain, ivy or laurel branches is a symbol of rebirth and life cycle.

Birds and Animals

Bee, like a butterfly, are symbols of hope. They are quite fragile, therefore, they are a reminder of the fragility of life.Butterfly - in religious symbols is an attribute of the soul. It also represents the resurrection of Christ.Live snail and sea shells - means death and fragility. The snail is also the personification of laziness and immaculate conception.Large molluscs represent the duality of nature, a symbol of lust, one of the deadly sins.Ant - an attribute of hard work.Dragonfly (as a subspecies of a butterfly) - a devilish nature.Birds or a pair of birds represent the resurrection of the soul after death.Mousebeing a very prolific animal, it has become a symbol of licentiousness and destruction.Parrot, birds and a cat - personify human shortcomings. Fishes symbolized Christ.Cats were great symbols of deception. Also implies illegal love. For centuries, cats have been considered mysterious, beautiful and exotic.A monkey represents chaos. They also symbolize a person who is captured by earthly and sensual desires. A monkey with an apple depicts a fall of a person.Turtle - long life (the turtle has a long life span of up to 150 years).

Product symbology

Balthazar van der Ast "Still life with fruit"

Artichokes, asparagus and strawberries were a symbol of the fruits of paradise.Lemons in the old days were a very expensive and popular product. Sour and bitter foods symbolize the deceptive attraction or attraction of earthly pleasures.Peeled lemons indicate duplicity.Meat, ham, game and shellfish symbolize wealth and temptation, again drawing attention to the fleetingness of luxury.Apple - can mean love, knowledge, wisdom, joy and death. In religious writings, it usually means temptation and original sin.Peaches - good health. The peach also symbolizes truth and salvation and is used as a substitute for the sinful apple. Shrimps are symbols of wealth and gluttony. Expensive delicacies such as shellfish and lemons have been associated with a privileged lifestyle.Bread - the flesh of Christ and humility.Grenades - fertility (metaphor for Persephone and Hades).Wine and grapes - holy communion.Lobster - wealth and temptation.Walnut woody texture symbolized the cross.Clam symbolizes the Virgin Mary. In contemporary works, they symbolize sensuality and pleasure.Rotten fruit is a symbol of aging. Ripe fruits symbolize fertility and abundance.

Musical instruments

Baskenis Evaristo

Musical instruments represent the brevity and transient nature of life.Lute is a popular symbol of love.Lute (with broken strings) - death or strife.Violin - the uselessness of earthly existence (easily breaking strings symbolize broken threads of time)

Other material elements


Feathers symbolize the virtues of hope, faith and mercy (in religious matters). They also represent freedom and heaven.Skulls or bones in the picture symbolize mortality.Oriental carpets- symbolize wealth. These were exclusive and expensive items that were placed on tables to protect the color and quality of the wood.Decorations or expensive clothes - the temporary nature of beauty and the sin of narcissism. They symbolize the transience of body beauty and the nature of wisdom in human life.Hourglass and a mechanical watch is the transience of time.Silk (especially purple) - bragging, vanity and pride. Silk was the highest quality and most expensive garment in the old days. They were available only to wealthy people. Purple was rare and expensive. Thus, purple silk clothing is a bright attribute of excessive pride.Books, cards, pen are a symbol of science. globe - this is the Earth and the Sky.Palette with brushes, laurel wreath (usually on the skull) is painting and poetry. Candle may indicate that time has passed, faith in God. When a candle is extinguished, it means death. A candle can symbolize the light in the darkness of a lonely person or the light of Christ, purification.Smoking candle or an oil lamp is a symbol of the human soul.Medical instruments - a reminder of the weakness of the human body and disease.Coin purses, jewelry boxes, jewelry and cosmetics are designed to create beauty, feminine appeal. And at the same time, they are associated with vanity, narcissism, and the deadly sin of arrogance.Crowns and sceptres - signs of transient earthly dominion, which contrasts with the heavenly world order.Bubble - this is the brevity of life and the suddenness of death (reference to the expression homo bulla - "a person is a soap bubble").Cups, playing cards, dice - a sign of wrong life goals, the search for pleasure in sin.Mirror symbolizes truth or vanity.Sinks in still life represent birth and fertility. Sword symbolizes strength, protection, authority, courage.Weapon - a symbol of power. Knife reminds of the vulnerability of a person in the face of death.Keys - symbolize the household.Carnival mask - this is a sign of a lack of humanity in the one who wears it. Reckless fun.Empty glass symbolizes death. Glass symbolizes the fragility of life and luxury.White porcelain is purity. Bottle is a symbol of the sin of drunkenness.

Popular by topic