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Copyrights AK, 2006


Iconography & Symbolism

... one generation dies,
Another in its place shall rise;
That, sinking soon into the grave,
Others succeed, like wave on wave.

Excerpt from 'Vanitas Vanitatum,
Omnia Vanitas' by Anne Bronte - (1845)

- Definition >>>
- Iconography & Symbolism >>>
- Tips from the Artist >>>

It is remarkably easy to underestimate the power of Baroque still life paintings, and to dismiss them as little more than random collections of mundane items scattered haphazardly about the canvas for effect. The untrained eye, mesmerized by the charismatic elegance and splendid realism of ordinary objects on display, gets readily caught up in a maze of superficial minutiae and drowns in intricate details that numb the mind and hold it captive long enough for a modern twenty first century audience to miss the bigger picture entirely. For the novice, blinded by a dizzying array of pretty things executed with so much grace and dexterity, it is naturally tempting to rush to judgment and conclude that these are nothing more than ornamental pieces, perfectly adequate for decorating walls but far too shallow in terms of content to warrant serious analysis.

However, to the initiated, Baroque still life paintings are anything but mindless eye candy. The shrewd masters who perfected this genre were not mechanically copying random sets of things found in nature merely for the pleasure of reproducing them on canvas. For the most part, they chose their objects with utmost care, cherry picking them for their symbolic value, and their capacity to channel multiple layers of meaning. With just a few simple objects, these clever conjurers were capable of composing pictorial messages of remarkable complexity, eloquence, and beauty, much as poets exploit the ambiguous meaning of words to broaden the scope of a verse.

Vanitas paintings are a veritable feast for the eye as well as for the mind. They have their own internal logic, and are not only designed to dazzle the senses, but are meant to challenge the intellect as well. In order to fully appreciate vanitas paintings, each iconic element has to be carefully examined and its various potential symbolic meanings must be properly ascertained within the broader context of the piece as well as in relation to surrounding elements. In this genre, objects are seldom what they seem. A glass of red wine is not just a vessel containing fermented grape juice, but it could very well stand for the blood of Christ (particularly if it sits next to a loaf of bread), or it could refer to the human sense of taste, or even to debauchery.

Consider for instance, "Nature Morte a L' Echiquier"
(Still Life with Chessboard) which is a classic example
of how deceptive vanitas pieces can truly be. It not
only illustrates the remarkable artistry of vanitas
masters but stands as a glaring testament to the
eminently cerebral nature of their craft. Sometimes
also referred to as the Allegory of the Five Senses,
this ostensibly simple painting attributed to Lubin
Baugin is by no means simplistic. Despite its stark
overall appearance, it is in point of fact a meticulously
choreographed pantomime of arcane icons operating on
multiple levels to produce a cryptic visual riddle with a
singular message.
[Read analysis of The Allegory of the Five Senses >>> ]

Analysis of the Allegory of the Sense  (image is in the public domain)

- Partial list of symbolic objects traditionally used by vanitas painters >>>

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