Many still life paintings contain hidden meanings, whether this is in the symbolism of flowers or in the inclusion of a human skull. One of the most typical features of this genre is nature’s bounty displayed in an abundance of fresh produce.
Although still life paintings appear at first glance to be composed as a simple study of shape, tone and colour, many historic examples have a deeper, allegorical meaning behind their choice of subject. This article will look into the symbolism of fruit in paintings, as well as their restoration in our studio.
Fruit symbolism in art history
The symbolism of fruit usually depends on the context, whether this is religious, classical or cultural. This guide will highlight some of the most popular choices related to each item found in a still life cornucopia.
Above: a detail from Grape Vines and Fruit with Three Wagtails by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, 1615–18
Grape: classically symbolic of the ancient god Bacchus, who was known for his debauchery. This hint towards the wine making process also makes them a Christian symbol, referencing the blood of Christ.
Apple: a Christian symbol in reference to the apple that was eaten by Eve in the Garden of Eden, resulting in the ‘fall of man’ and their expulsion from paradise. This concept gives the apple a secondary meaning of temptation and a connection to satan, especially if paired with a serpent. Alternatively, apples may be a sign of the harvest season and a simple pastoral existence. The story of the golden apple from Greek mythology may also be a hidden theme, as the mortal Paris was tasked with giving the fruit to the ‘fairest of them all’ – eventually choosing the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
Above: a detail from Still Life with Apples and Pears by Paul Cézanne, 1891–92
Pear: in classical history, pears were a sign of abundance and referred to as ‘a gift from the gods’ in Homer’s Odyssey. In Christian art, pears are often found in depictions of the Madonna and Christ Child, symbolic of love and divine fertility.
Pineapple: a symbol of great wealth. Historically, pineapples had to be shipped from ‘the new world’ and were estimated to cost thousands of pounds to produce. This made them a key feature of baroque still life paintings that aimed to establish the high status of their patron.
Above: a detail from Still Life: Flowers and Fruit by Severin Roesen, 1850–55
Plum: in Asian art they may symbolise the arrival of spring and protection against evil.
Orange and lemon: a sign of abundance, prosperity and ambition in Northern renaissance paintings, as they needed to be imported from Spain at a great cost. By the 17th century, they could be grown in greenhouses, but this still made them an exclusive treat.
Peaches: symbolic of immorality and longevity, especially in Chinese art.
Above: a detail from Still Life with Peaches and Grapes by Auguste Renoir, 1881
Cherry: symbolic of the fruit of paradise, purity, a sweet nature, tenderness and blood that is yet to be shed.
Fig: symbolic of both the sexual desire of the god Bacchus and the leaves that cover many statues, as well as typical depictions of Adam and Eve.
Above: a detail from Girl with Cherries, attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, 1491–95
Pomegranate: often in reference to the story of the Greek goddess Persephone, who was made to spend half of the year in the underworld after eating a single pomegranate pip. In Christian art, pomegranates symbolise Christ’s suffering, resurrection and everlasting life.
Strawberry: the fruit of paradise, souls and the forbidden fruit. Strawberries can be seen throughout Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as an example of an abundant earthly delight.
Above: a detail from Pomegranates and Other Fruit in a Landscape by Abraham Brueghel, 17th century
Still life painting restoration
Still life paintings are some of the most popular pieces in our studio. Our conservators have restored examples from various centuries, from grand baroque cornucopias to minimalistic contemporary pieces.
Typically, historic paintings have become discoloured over time – either through their environment or aged varnish. A surface clean is the first step for most treatment plans, followed by a full varnish removal if it is required.
Above: a heavily cracked painting featuring cherries and birds, before and after restoration
These processes allow us to see clearly the original colours and details, an important aspect for artworks that are so rich with symbolism. Paintings may have also been torn or show other signs of damage, these issues can all be rectified with sensitive conservation treatments.
You can find out more about the history and restoration of still life paintings here. For more information about flower symbolism and tulip mania, we have a full article here.
How can we help?
Our conservation team is happy to offer advice and assist you with any restoration concerns. Email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576