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  • Russ Ramsey

Symbolism in Art

For this Art Wednesday we’ll look at common symbols in art—especially older art. Instruments represent beauty, celebration, and leisure, unless the strings are broken, in which case they convey the opposite—discord.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533


Candles represent and even measure the passing of time. A new, unlit candle conveys youth and an abundance of time ahead. A candle burnt down speaks to the limits of our mortality and nearness of our end.

Vincent van Gogh, Still Life with Bible, 1885


Insects represent decay. They can be found in scenes that are otherwise teeming with life, but their mere presence reminds us that this moment of life is fleeting.

Balthasar van der Ast, Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects, 1635


Dead animals are fascinating symbols. They convey the contradiction of abundance by way of destruction, which is another way of showing dominion, meeting a need by way of a creature losing its life.

William van Aeist, Still Life with Dead Game, 1661


Skulls and bones speak to mortality and death. Here Cezanne combines the symbol of death with a symbol of life and abundance—fruit. Learning symbols helps us gain some interpretive clues when we look at art.

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Skull, 1898


Books symbolize learning and knowledge. Here you have a combination like Van Gogh’s still life from earlier—books and candles burnt down. What do you suppose the two symbols together combine to say?

Henri Matisse, Still Life with Books and Candle, 1890


Apples symbolize temptation. Magritte said, “you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden face. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1946

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