Research Point – Iconography of Still Life Painting

Iconography of Still Life Painting

Still life paintings were full of symbolic meaning and often single items can have many different interpretations. These meanings would have been more apparent to the people of the time they were painted but even some of these wouldn’t have realised their full meaning. The Dutch artist Jan Davidsz de Heem, was a popular artist at the time. He was a Catholic at the time of the protestant reformation and there are examples of the Catholic Eucharist within his works but his work had a wide appeal nevertheless (3).


Jan Davidsz de Heem, Flowers In Glass Vase Crucifix And A Skull, c. 1630, oil on canvas, 102.8 cm x 84.9 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The so called Golden Age in Holland was localised and unique in Western art. In other countries still life was seen as a lower form of art but in Holland the genre was at it’s height. It was fuelled by the wealth of the area at the time due to trading. All members of the community were able to own paintings and it was popular to have depictions of wealth such as banquets and elaborate bouquets on their walls. Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Still Life with Fruit and Ham is perfect example of such a depiction of opulence.


Jan Davidszoon de Heem – Still Life with Fruit and Ham, 1648-49, Oil on canvas, 79.2 x 102.5 cm, The Wallace Collection, London

This didn’t sit well with the Dutch Calvinist ethic of moderation and self-control however. Subsequently so called Vanitas or “Momento Mori” (literally reminder of death) became popular in order to show the luxury and excess but to also include a reminder of how all these material indulgences may only be temporary.

An example of this is Willem Claesz Heda’s – Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, 1635. It shows a the remains of a banquet with all luxuries: oysters, olives and lemons with silver and gold dishes and crisp white linen. But the scene is in disarray. The food is half eaten and the dishes have been knocked over and broken. The meat pie itself is a half eaten mess. This paintings shows that extravagance is all very well but one must be prepared for death and judgement. The simple bread roll which remains untouched represents their salvation.


Willem Claesz Heda’s – Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, 1635, oil on canvas, 106.7 x 111.1 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Caravaggio’s still life, Fruit basket, 1596, is widely recognized as the first still life painted in the traditional style. If you look closely at this paintings you can see that Caravaggio has chosen to show his basket of fruit not as a group of perfectly formed and ready to eat examples but rather as slightly decaying with curled and wilting leaves and fruit with brown marks and pits. Rather than a result of the length of time it took for him to paint it, such that the fruit in the bowl started to rot, this is considered to be a “momento mori”, a reminder that everything decays.

caravaggio fruit basket

Caravaggio – Fruit Basket, 1596, oil on canvas, 31 cm × 47 cm, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Caravagiggio’s fruit basket should be examined in a very different light from a similar arrangement from the Netherlands however. The fruit included in Caravaggio’s basket would have been easily available in the warm climate of Italy. A fruit basket in the Netherlands would have very different meaning however as many fruits had to be imported and were symbols of the exotic, wealth and abundance (4).

Floral still lifes were very popular as they brought continued pleasure to the viewer long after the blooms had died. These elaborate bouquets are more displays of wealth however. The flowers they show were often exotic species and many composition show flowers that would never naturally bloom at the same time as each other. The tulip in particular was a huge exhibition of wealth where single bulbs could fetch the same prices as a house.

vosmaer a vase of flowers

Jacob Vosmaer – A Vase of Flowers, 1618, Oil on wood; 85.1 x 62.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

These collections of blooms from different areas and contradictory flowering times is not as it first seems, a display of natural beauty, but rather a demonstration of man’s power over the natural world. Inclusion of certain blooms, for instance, those with unusual colours or odd markings, represented advances in horticultural techniques and thus science (4).

The painting recommended in the course brief, Willem Kalf, Still Life with Drinking Horn from 1653 is clear depiction of success and wealth. This was commissioned by the guild of Archers and Kalf has indicated this by including the Saint Sebastian on the silver mount who was the patron saint of archers.  The items included clearly indicate luxury. Lobster and lemon both would have been expensive to eat and the horn is beautifully decorated with delicate silver.

Willem Kalf - Still Life Drinking Horn

Willem Kalf, Still Life Drinking Horn, c. 1653, Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 102.2 cm, The National Gallery, London

Other items that suggest wealth and the Dutch trade with foreign lands are: account books or books in general, wine and beer, exotic birds and animals including game (hunting was a pastime of the wealthy (2)), textiles and fabrics, cheese and butter, exotic fruits and vegetables such as citrus fruits, coins and purses, glassware and porcelain ceramics, gold or silver dishes, a goose, jewellery, maps, game, meats and crustaceans, salt and spices, shells, and in general any large group of items would indicate wealth (3).

The vanitas still lifes reminded the viewer of life’s transience, none more so than the inclusion of a skull in a painting. Some of the objects had a more subtle reminder of death however: a candle which can be blown out, musical instrument that represent earthly pleasures and whose music can only be heard for a short time, hourglass and other time pieces, insects eating food, oil lamps, ribbons, bubbles and tobacco or smoke. The number of these items demonstrates the importance that this view had at the time. The protestant reformation discouraged overt displays of wealth as had been seen in the Catholic church and encouraged contemplation of one’s faith and the emptiness of material pursuits (2) but the affluence of the region at this time was such that decoration of domestic interiors was commonplace. The vanitas was a way in which people could have decorative items but outwardly assuage their guilt by including the constant moral reminder of where material belongings would lead to.

de Heem wasn’t the only artist to reference divine meaning in their still lifes. Some other items with religious iconology are: wine (blood of Christ), bread and wheat, walnuts, violin (warning against sin), thorny plants, sunshine or sunflowers to represent divine light, strawberry, ivy or pansy plants to represent the trinity because of their 3 petals, white or red roses (blood of christ or purity), lily to represent the Virgin Mary, lettuce (penitence), ivy (Christs wreath), grapes (purity), roasted chicken (Christ’s sacrifice),  butterflies which were associated with the resurrection, apples the original sin, acorns represening Gods creation and often a cross would be included in a reflection on glass (3).

de Heem - Still Life with Grapes, 1655-60

Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still-Life with Grapes (Featuring grapes, wheat , and wine), c. 1655-60, Oil on canvas, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover

1-Pieter Clauszoon_Vanitas with Glass Ball_Nuremberg_Germanisches Nationalmuseum_1628

Pieter Claeszoon – Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, 1628, c. 1628, Oil on panel, 36 x 59 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. (Features a cross in the window reflection and violin, skull and time piece as momento mori)

There are some other symbols which crop up in still lifes from this period. The cat can be interpreted as indiscretion or being unteachable (see below, Adriaenssen the Elder – Still Life with Fish and Cat,  in which the meaning is clear), while the dog represents loyalty and being teachable, but also greed and laziness as well as war. Still on the subject of animals, the dolphin as represented on dishes and glassware could mean fidelity and friendship (see the painting below by van Beyeren – Still Life of Bowls). Different flowers can have different meanings as described above. Some others are the columbine flower which represents melancholy or regret, a gladiolus represents grief and suffering and the forget-me-not which symbolises remembrance. A fruit basket in general can symbolise fertility (3).


Adriaenssen the Elder, Still Life with Fish and Cat, 1631 Oil on oak, 46.9 x 64.4 cm, York Museums Trust


Abraham Hendricksz. van Beyeren – Still Life of Bowls, 1654, oil on canvas (Features a dolphin in the gold and silver bowl)

I have found that symbolism in Still Life painting is an enormous topic. People have written whole books giving interpretations of items found in these works. Although some meaning are fairly obvious, others are quite subtle and other objects in the paintings  should be taken into consideration as well as the title of the work, the artist themselves and why the work was done when analysing a still life as a whole. The context of the religious period in which the paintings were made should also be considered.


1., 22/09/14

2. Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, A Profile of the Seventeenth Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington…/teachingpackets/pdfs/dutch_painting.pdf 2007 Nat i o n a l G a l l e r y o f A r t | D i v i s i o n o f Ed u c at i o n, D e pa r tme n t o f Ed u c at i o n P u b l i c at i o n s Washington 22/09/14

3. Symbols of Change in Dutch Golden Age Still Life Paintings: Teachers’ Guide and Lesson Plan, Ellen Siegel, Social Studies Department, Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, Bronx, NY 22/09/

4. Bryson R. (1990) Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, 1st Edition, Reaktion Books Ltd, London

This text was added to following the comments received in tutor report Jan 2015

Word Count – 1631



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