Symbolism Used in 16th to 19th Century Still Life

Fig. 01 Pipe from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Pipe from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

The following list of symbols and their meanings are included here as a useful reference as I work towards assignment 4. I have collected these meanings from a variety of sources which are listed below. Many symbols have complex meanings and, in some cases, opposing meanings depending on their context; in such cases I have generally used the meaning that makes most sense to me or have referenced the context in which they should be interpreted.

This list is not exhaustive nor is it intended as part of a study of 400 years of European still life, it is at best superficial and incomplete. I want to use some of this symbolism in my compositions for assignment 4 and having spend a lot of time tracking down this information I wanted to collect it together in one, easily referenced place.

A Summary of Symbols and their Meanings 

Apple in religious works – Adam and Eve and all that

Apple in non religious works – love, knowledge, wisdom, joy or a woman’d breasts

Apple in half – the sexuality of women

Artichokes and asparagus – the fruits of heaven

Artist’s instruments – indulgence in the arts

Bees – hope

Birds – resurrection of the soul after death

Bones – mortality

Books – learning, worldly pleasures, human knowledge is temporary

Bread – bread of life, often left untouched amongst the remains of a feast

Bubbles – transience of life

Butterflies – the soul or sometimes the resurrection of Christ

Cats – illicit love, lust, prostitutes

Candles snuffed – time flies, death, the loss of virginity, the corruption of matter

Candles lit – faith in God, a light in the darkness, the lift of Christ, purification or cleansing

Carpets – wealth

Clams – the Virgin Mary

Dice – earthly pleasures

Feathers – hope, faith and charity, flight and freedom

Flowers – the fragility of life, innocence,

Food – abundance

Food decaying – brevity of life, mortality

Game Birds and Animals – aristocratic image of country life, the wealth of estates

Glassware tipped over or broken – brevity of life

Glass half empty – brevity of life

Hourglass – time flies

Imported objects – wealth

Insects – brevity of life

Ivy, often shown beneath or crowning a skull – eternal life, resurrection

jars in stoneware or porcelain – the essentials of life (oil, water etc)

Laurel, often shown beneath or crowning a skull – eternal life, resurrection

Lemons – beauty can be bitter

Lemons – combined with sweet fruit to represent the sweet and sour of life

Lily – devotion, purity

Lute with broken strings – death or discord

Mice – fertility and thereby lechery

Mirror – vanity, the temporary nature of beauty

Monkey – chaos

Musical instruments – indulgence in luxury items, or inspiration

Oil lamps – transience of life

Oysters – sexuality and the pleasures of the flesh

Peaches – truth and salvation, or a woman’s buttocks

Playing cards  – earthly pleasures

Pocket watch – fleeting nature of earthly pleasure

Rose – love

Rose thorns – the Virgin Mary’s sorrow

Scientific instruments – earthly existatence

Shells – pilgrimages or saints in religious art; otherwise sensuality and the pleasures of the flesh

Silk tablecloths – vanity

Skulls – mortality

Strawberries – the fruit of heaven

Sunflowers – devotion

Swords – power, protection and strength

Sword with sheath – fornication

Sword with soldiers and women – sexual overtones

Triangle – in the form of a pyramid represented the Holy Trinity.

Triangular Cloth – Christ’s life, death and resurrection

Triangle Inverted – femininity or mother earth.

Velvet cloth – vanity

Wheat, often shown beneath or crowning a skull – eternal life, resurrection

Wine – debauchery



Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs: Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Cincinnati: David and Charles.


The National gallery of Art – Still Life Painting –

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – A Table Set for Tea –

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600 – 1800 –

Ringling Museum -Vanity in 17th Century Dutch Art –

Rodriguez, Levin. The Berkemeyer Project –

Phelps, D G. the Art of D.G.Phelps –



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