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Friday, 15 September 2017

The Interpretation of Symbols in Still Life Paintings

Spring Bouquet, acrylic, 16" x 20"

Blog 38


While many still lifes nowadays are painted in order to show simply the beauty of the objects and the interesting composition, many early still lifes contained symbols to express the artist’s opinion with regard to common religious, spiritual, social, cultural, and moral views.

The so called vanitas paintings contained big arrangements of objects that held a lot of symbolic meanings with regard to life's fragility and the inevitability of death, often warning the viewer that all earthly riches are vain.

Some of the most popular natural objects used in still life paintings were food, flowers and plants, animals, shells, skulls, bones, rocks and stones, feathers, and shells. Books, china, vases, jewelry, coins, and tools were man-made objects that were often used as well.

Sometimes, the painting of natural objects was done to symbolize a scientific interest in nature. More often natural objects were used to show abundance or deprivation of material goods, and mortality. In general there is the distinction between fresh and decaying objects. For example, fresh food signifies abundance and wealth, while decaying food serves as a reminder of our own mortality. The same is true for freshness of flowers and plants. They are often also a reminder that life is short and fragile, or symbolize certain seasons. In some cases, flowers of different colours have a different meaning (see for example the rose).

Here are a couple of flowers and their meaning:
Lilies: purity, chastity, and innocence.
Orchids: perfection.
Poppies: sleep and death.
Red roses: love and passion, are also used as a symbol for the Virgin Mary
White roses: virginity and purity
Yellow roses: jealousy and infidelity.
Sunflowers: loyalty, admiration, longevity and faith.

In Western cultures, the Christian Church was a strong influence on artists and one of their most affluent commissioners, therefore many religious symbols were used to tell the constant battle between good and evil. The triangle with its point upwards and the three divided clover leaf are signs of the Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, while four-leafed clovers represent luck. The butterfly often represents the soul and the resurrection of Christ. Bread symbolizes the body of Christ, while vine leaves and grapes can either be a symbol of Christ’s blood or a symbol of earthly pleasures, but also of the loss of self-control. Feathers can either symbolize the religious virtues of hope, faith, and charity or freedom as they make it possible to fly, and rise up to heaven. Therefore, birds symbolize the resurrection of the soul after death. The apple often represents temptation and sin according to the bible story of Adam and Eve. At the same time it is a symbol of knowledge and death. Skulls or bones also symbolize mortality. Skull also represent inner contemplation, and eternity.
Clocks, hourglasses and burning candles show the passing of time, but when a candle is extinguished it symbolizes the end of life or loss. In a Christian painting a candle can also be a symbol for the light of Christ.

Musical instruments are often added to still lifes. String instruments like the violin often symbolize the vanity of our life, because their strings break easily. The flute on the other hand is often a symbol with sexual meaning. Music is often associated with a lazy and sinful life.

Luxury items like jewelry symbolize wealth and power in still life paintings. However,
when they are toppled, it is a sign that earthly riches are fleeting. Meat and fish also symbolize wealth, as well as greed and temptation. They also warn of the transience of wealth.

When looking at the meaning of objects used in a still life painting you have to use caution as some objects have a different meaning in different cultures and settings. If you are more interested in the subject, you can find a lot of fascinating information online and in books.

This was my short introduction to still lifes and my attempt to show you that especially the older artworks contain a lot of information and meaning behind the beautiful facade.

When this blog is published, I am on our yearly painting trip in the Kamouraska Region at the St. Lawrence River. Starting next week, I will share my travelogue with you. In remembrance of my wonderful Kamouraska trips, this week’s painting on sale is the 16” x 20” acrylic painting “Roch-des-Aulnaies, QC”. The painting is in a gold frame. The original price is $420. You can purchase it for $375 until Monday, September 18, 2017 at noon. Shipping and handling fees are added, except if you pick up the artwork or live in the Orleans area. To buy the painting, please send me an email to kpeters@domingoinformatics.ca. Payment can be made in cash, by check or e-transfer. Photos of each new painting are posted every Monday on my website www.KerstinPeters.ca as well as on my Facebook page www.facebook.com/KerstinPetersPaintings.


I hope you enjoyed my blog and will return next week. If you enjoy my blogs, I encourage you to subscribe to an automatic delivery of my blogs to your email inbox.


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