How to watch Dutch still life Part 1

Dutch still life of the XVI–XVII centuries — a kind of intellectual game in which the viewer was asked to solve certain characters. What easily read contemporaries, today it is clear not all and not always. Explain what is depicted artists and objects.

John Calvin taught that everyday things have a hidden significance, and every image must stand the moral lesson. The objects depicted in still lifes, multivalued: they were given an edifying, religious or other connotations. For example, oysters were considered an erotic symbol, and to contemporaries it was obvious: oysters supposedly stimulated sexual potency, and Venus, goddess of love, born out of a shell. On the one hand, oysters hinted at worldly temptations, on the other — an open shell meant the soul, ready to leave the body, that is promised salvation. Strict rules how to read the still life, of course, did not exist, and the viewer guessed on the canvas exactly those characters that you wanted to see. Besides, we must not forget that each item was a part of the composition and it can be read in different ways depending on the context and the overall message of the still life.

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Floral still life

Until the XVIII century, a bouquet of flowers, usually symbolized frailty, because earthly pleasures are also transient, like the beauty of a flower. The symbolism of plants is particularly complex and ambiguous, and to make sense helped popular in Europe XVI–XVII centuries, books of emblems, where allegorical illustrations and slogans were accompanied by explanatory texts. The flower arrangement was not easy to interpret: the same flower had multiple meanings, sometimes the opposite. For example, Narcissus pointed to the narcissism and at the same time considered a symbol of the mother of God. In still lifes, usually kept both the image and the viewer was free to choose one of the two meanings or combine them.

Floral arrangements were often supplemented with fruit, small objects, images of animals. These images expressed the main idea of the work, emphasizing the motif of transience, of decay, of a sin of all the earthly and incorruptibility of virtue.

The painting Yan Davids de Hema at the base of the vase, the artist has depicted the symbols of impermanence: wilted and broken flowers, falling petals and dried peas. There’s a snail — it is associated with the soul of a sinner. In the center of the bouquet, we see the symbols of modesty and purity: the wildflowers, violets, and forget-me-nots. They are surrounded by tulips, symbolizing the fading beauty and senseless waste (cultures of tulips was considered in the Netherlands, one of the vainest pursuits and also expensive); lush roses and poppies, a reminder of the fragility of life. The composition is crowned with two large flower that has a positive value. Blue iris represents the remission of sins and the opportunity of salvation through virtue. The red poppy, which is traditionally associated with sleep and death, because of its location in the bouquet changed the interpretation: here it refers to the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Other symbols of salvation are bread the ears, and the butterfly sitting on the stem represents the immortal soul.

“Flowers, fruit and monkey” is a good example of semantic layering and ambiguity of the still life and objects on it. At first glance, the combination of plants and animals seems to be accidental. Actually, this still life also reminds us of the transience of life and the sinfulness of earthly existence. Every item depicted translates a certain idea: the snail and the lizard, in this case, indicate the mortality of all the earth; Tulip, lying near the bowl of fruit symbolizes the rapid fading; shells scattered on the table, hinting at the foolish waste of money; and a monkey with a peach points to original sin and depravity. On the other hand, butterfly, and fruit: grapes, apples, peaches and pears — talking about the immortality of the soul and the atoning sacrifice of Christ. On another, an allegorical level is represented in the painting fruit, fruits, flowers, and animals represent the four elements: shell and snail — water; the butterfly are the air; the fruits and flowers of the earth; monkey fire.

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Still life at the butcher shop

The picture butcher shop traditionally been associated with the idea of physical life, the personification of the earth element, and gluttony. The picture Pieter Aartsen almost all the space is bursting with food table. We see many types of meat: a dead bird, and carved carcasses, offal and ham, ham and sausages. These images symbolize the excesses, gluttony, and affection to carnal pleasures. Now pay attention to the background. On the left side of the picture in the window opening is placed the gospel scene of the flight into Egypt, which contrasts sharply with the still life in the foreground. The virgin Mary holds out the last piece of bread to a poor girl. Note that the window is located above the dish, where the cross (the symbol of the crucifixion) are two fish — a symbol of Christianity and Christ. To the right are the depicts the tavern. At the table sitting by the fire, cheerful company, drinking and eating oysters, which, as we recall, associated with lust.

Next to the table hangs a split carcass, indicating the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly pleasures. The butcher in a red shirt dilutes the wine with water. This scene echoes the main idea of the still life and refers to the Parable of the prodigal son. The scene in the tavern, as well as the butcher shop, full of delicious meals, tells about an idle, dissolute life, attachment to earthly pleasures, pleasant for the body, but harmful to the soul. In the scene of the flight into Egypt heroes almost turned to the viewer: they are removed from the picture, away from the butcher shop. It’s a metaphor of escape from a dissolute life, full of sensual pleasures. A waiver is one way to save the soul.

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