Archive for January 11th, 2014

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Iconography of still life paintings

Flanders St Jerome

St Jerome
C. 1540
National Gallery of Victoria

Although still life as an independent genre didn’t begin to flourish until the early 17th century in the Netherlands, elements of its iconography can be seen in earlier works. This unsigned and undated painting in the National Gallery of Victoria shows the saint in his study. He points at a skull on which sits a fly. The skull is a symbol of death, and a special attribute of a number of saints including Jerome. James Hall (2008) provides extensive information about symbols in art, including the use of a skull as an aid to “the contemplation of death as a spiritual exercise [as] recommended by the Jesuits” (Hall, 2008, p. 293). Unexpectedly Hall suggests the fly does not have symbolic meaning. Rather than perhaps a link to putrefaction, Hall suggests a fly serves as a “protective talisman” against insect damage (Hall, 2008, p. 130). On the window sill the hour glass suggests the passing of time, the apple Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. The crucifixion image seen in the open book could suggest the Resurrection and conquest of death. The quill pen may simply refer to Jerome’s philosophical writing, or as in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) “suggest that worldly efforts are ultimately in vain” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006).

Skull and bones vanitas still life

Skull and bones vanitas still life
circa 1600
Published by: Robert de Baudous After: Abraham Bloemaert Print made by: Jan Saenredam
© Trustees of the British Museum

One major sub-category of the still life genre was the vanitas, emphasising the brevity of human life and insignificance of human concerns. An extreme example is on the right from the British Museum. In addition to the skull there are straight trumpets (“blown by angels to announce the last judgement, and at the day of wrath” (Hall, 2008, p. 323), scythes (carried by Death to cut lives short), lit lamps and torches (the brevity of life) and spades (man must toil for his food following the Fall). The rope may refer to Christ’s betrayal, as he was bound by soldiers. The shields across the top are difficult to see, but there could be reference to the fleeting nature of music, the sword which is no protection from death (or wields power only briefly in life), and the bird if a swan could be uttering its last beautiful cry.

"Vanitas" Still Life

“Vanitas” Still Life
Adam Bernaert
circa 1665
The Walters art museum

This work by Bernaert is just as full symbolism, but much more decorative and suitable for the wall of the wealthy middle class in the Netherlands. The hour glass is there, also an overturned glass symbolising emptiness. Creative endeavours such as music and writing are transitory as is the beauty of pearls. The important looking papers and the map of the Dutch East Indies reflect possessions and power that will pass. The globes show that all is affected by time, even the heavens above and the earth below.

Still life with fruit

Still life with fruit
Jan Davidsz. de Heem
c. 1640-1650
National Gallery of Victoria

Another sub-category of still life was the pronkstilleven or sumptuous painting. I mentioned this one by Jan Davidsz. de Heem in my post about visiting the NGV (see 21-July-2013) as I was impressed by the neighbouring cabinet displaying items similar to those in the painting. In paintings like this there is no Christian or moral message. Instead they show the wealth of their owners and the technical virtuosity of the artist. heemThe pomegranate could be a symbol of the Resurrection, or of “the unity of the many under one authority” (Hall, 2008, p. 257), but here it seems more likely to be seen as one part of an abundance of rare fruit. The reflections of light and of fruit in the glass are masterly.

Doing this Research Point I have not had time to consider more modern use of iconography in still life paintings. Audrey Flack uses traditional still life vanitas icons in Marilyn (1977), including an hour glass and a candle (which could have layered meaning given Elton John’s Candle in the Wind of 1973), updated with modern items such as cosmetics and photographs (see In contrast Stoker (2008) suggests that more modern artists, no longer using traditional Christian iconography, have developed other methods to express transcendence. He describes Rothko’s chapel paintings, maintaining that in viewing them “we will be confronted with our mortality” (Stoker, 2008, p. 94) and proposes that “the arrangement [of the chapel paintings] invokes the tension between the mortal tragic existence of the human being and the transcendent” (Stoker, 2008, p. 98).

Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of subjects and symbols in art. Boulder: Westview Press

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) “Pieter Claesz: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (49.107) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006) (Accessed 11-Jan-2014)

Stoker, W (2008) “The Rothko Chapel Paintings and the ‘urgency of the transcendent experience’” In International Journal For Philosophy Of Religion, 64 (2), pp. 89-102, Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost, viewed 10 January 2014.

UA1-WA:P3-p3-Ex Iconography of still life paintings
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part three: Modern art and still life
Project three: Introducing still life
Research point: Iconography of still life paintings


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