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Iconography & Symbolism

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ALLEGORY OF THE FIVE SENSES
(Still Life with Chessboard)
by Lubin Baugin

[image in Public Domain]
courtesy of Wikipedia


At first glance, Still Life with Chessboard seems little more than a random set of a dozen or so odd objects dispersed on a table. The (a) chess board and (b) mandola lying casually on top of (c) a booklet filled with musical notations are the only items that stick out prominently from the table' s edge, as if reaching out to tempt the audience to play with them. Not far behind, (d) a deck of cards and (e) an oval pearl huddle around (f) a plump purse that is nestled comfortably between the pot bellied string instrument and the checkered board. All the way in the back, (g) a glass of red wine, (h) a loaf of bread and (i,ii,iii) a few carnations with their necks sticking out from a vase line up against a stone wall. The whole scene is flanked by (j) a strange octagonal mirror peering askance at all the objects lying at its feet.

Oddly enough, the mirror casts no reflection, as if the articles before it were mere apparitions, far too transient in nature to leave a lasting impression on any of the human senses. It is as though the reflective surface of the mirror had already anticipated the brevity of life and acknowledged the ephemeral nature of all channels of human sensory perception. It already knows that money stached in purses, gambling implements, and all those material possessions that so comfort the sense of touch vanish but in an instant. It also knows that no sooner wine and bread pass human lips their taste melts away on the roof of the palette; that in no time flowers wither and their scent evaporates; and that the moment music stops ringing in the ears, melody turns into fading memory, all in the blink of an eye.

This is not just vague imagery lamenting the overall transience of sensory pleasures, but a deliberately scripted pictorial statement with a sophisticated iconographic syntax where every object is loaded with symbolism that can funnel more than one meaning depending on one' s level of visual literacy. The loaf of bread and glass of red wine are not just food and beverage that appeal to the sense of taste. They stand as well for the Eucharist, the very flesh and blood of Christ miraculously transmuted into sacred dough and booze. The three carnations stuck in a vase are not just decorative elements that delight the sense of smell, but are Baroque symbols of divine love and represent the sacred trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holly Ghost. Together, the wine, bread and carnations form an island of sacred objects that stand in sharp contrast to the profane elements before them. These also carry dual connotations. The mirror serves both as optical device as well as a sign of man' s vanity. The mandola serves as musical instrument but is also a 17th century symbol of sloth and indolence. As for the purse, pearl, cards and game of chess, they are not merely tactile material possessions, but symbols of greed, corruption and idleness.

Lubin deliberately kept the cards upfront in a stack ready to be cut. He also left the purse strings pulled up tight and the chessboard closed, signaling to the audience that the cards have not yet been dealt, the bets have not yet been placed, and it is not too late for the audience to chose between the sacred and the profane. One can either reach for the more accessible elements clustered in the foreground and succomb to a frivolous life of fleeting pleasures and vice, or aim for the harder to reach items in the back and follow the righteous path to eternal and everlasting beatitude.

For Lubin, the choice is clear. He uses a strong, single point, linear perspective with parallel guidelines that are clearly visible on the receding wall, the top and bottom sides of the octogonal mirror, and in particular on the checkered surface and edges of the elongated chess board. These segments converge towards a distant vanishing point situtated on the horizon line somewhere beyond the glass of wine, the loaf of bread and the carnations. This produces an overall tunnel vision effect that invariably channels the center of vision towards the distant focal point in the vicinity of the sacred objects, and forms a corridor that pulls the eye away from the profane elements in the foreground.

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