Category Archives: Introducting still life

Research Point: Still Life Iconography

Still life paintings can be seen as far back as Ancient Egypt were food and other items adorned the tomb walls in the belief that in the afterlife they became real and therefore could be used by the deceased.

The term still life is a relatively new term only appearing in the middle of the 16th century, before then paintings were referred to as fruit, banquet or luncheon paintings.   By the 16th century food and flowers appear in still life paintings as symbols of the seasons and the five senses.  Vanitas (latin for vanity)images began to appear around 1600 when Dutch artists started to use them. A memento mori is a reminder that life is fleeting.  In Latin it means “remember you must die.”

While researching the iconography used in still life paintings I came across this lesson plan from the Social Studies Department, Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, Bronx, N if you scroll down to page 12 there is a list of symbols and their meanings.

Here are just a few of the obvious objects that I have seen used in still life paintings:-

  • Books -knowledge, wealth, scientific inquiry; also limits of human
    knowledge compared to divine
  • Bread -Everyday life, humility, Catholic host (the body of Christ)
  • Candle – Life is brief, time is short
  • Legal deeds – Trade, business, wealth, also; earthly, temporary wealth
  • Glassware – Wealth, moderation, broken or spilled may imply moderation or fleeting life.
  • Grapes -Religious symbolism or symbolism of purity, can also be symbol of trade (grapes from Spain)
  • Maps – Exploration and discovery, trade and wealth
  • Oranges/lemons -trade (from Mediterranean) or exploration
  • Scientific instruments -Exploration and scientific inquiry, the inadequacy of human knowledge compared to divine.
  • Violin – learning, knowledge or warning against sinful life “The fiddle or violin is alas used more in the service of vanity than in the praise and glory of God.