Symbolism in Paintings: the Dark and Enigmatic World of Dutch Still-lifes

Dutch still-lifes are typically paintings and or prints done by the Dutch masters, but they were also produced in other countries. (And yes, in case you weren’t sure what is the plural of still life, it really is still lifes.)

List Of Go-To Objects In Dutch Still-Lifes

So what does still life mean? A still life, also known by its French title, nature morte, is a painting or drawing with an inanimate subject matter. It represents an arrangement of natural and man-made objects, typically varied in texture. Still lives often feature flowers, fruits, vegetables, wine, fish, but also other commonplace objects.

What subject matter was popular in seventeenth century in the Netherlands, you may wonder? For one thing, 17th century dutch still life paintings are filled with symbolism. These paintings often give off a gloomy, haunted vibe because of the subjects depicted and their dark, Gothic atmosphere, which is often associated with shadows on a wall. In this guide, we will define what is a still-life and further discuss the themes featured in these works that make them so spooky. Additionally, we will explore the hidden symbols of Dutch still-lifes during a period when the Dutch masters ruled supreme.

How does an art lover in 2022 navigate the hidden meanings of 17th century Dutch still life paintings and their fascinating symbolism? And what were the most commonly used symbols in Flemish art during this period?

Dutch Symbolism: List Of Go-To Objects In Dutch Still-Lifes


The most common symbol in Dutch still-lifes is bread. Some have suggested that the bread in Dutch Golden age still-life paintings symbolizes the dead body of Jesus. The bread can also symbolize the crackers used during last supper or a table spread. Bread was a highly prized item, hence its importance in still-lifes. 

2. Milk

The second most common symbol in Dutch still-lifes is Milk. Some have suggested that the milk in these paintings symbolizes the breast of the Virgin Mary. Milk was an expensive item hence its importance to Dutch still-lifes. It is also related to the chalice used by Jesus during his last supper.

3. Oyster 

The third most common symbol in Dutch still-lifes is an oyster. An oyster is known for its slippery, hard exterior, which hides its soft interior. The oyster was used to depict the material world because it represents something beautiful inside a cold, hard shell. 

4. Medlar

The fruit medlar was used in Dutch still-lifes as a symbol for death. The medlar was known for its thin, hard skin that protected an abundance of fruit within. The medlar was also regarded as a symbol of a tree with little light, which makes it hard to see the beauty and details within it. 

5. Lemons

A still life painting may feature lemons. The bitterness of lemons was used in Dutch still-lifes to depict the world and death. Lemons were also known for their acidic appearance, which was also used to depict the world and death. It was also a common practice to use a lemon as a symbol for death because it was believed that an unlucky person who didn’t wear gloves would get acid on their hands and dissolve their bones.

6. Snail

What do snails symbolize? Snails have been considered a symbol of the Virgin Birth because it was believed that the mother of Jesus had snails in her garden. Snails are also known for their slimy, mucous membrane. Together, these characteristics make them a symbol of death. It was also thought that a snail reproduces itself by throwing its slime onto the ground, making a snail a symbol of reproduction. 


The exterior of a glass was shiny and slick, while the inside was scratched and dirty. This has made glass a symbol for sin, because of its exterior appearance. Along with the maim and dirt, glass also holds the sharpness of a knife, which was associated with sin. Some have suggested that the glasses in Dutch still-lifes represent eyes and sin. The glass is also a symbol of death because it is always being used to drink from. Glasses were expensive, hence its importance in Dutch still-lifes. 


Flutes have been considered phallic symbols because of their shape and appearance. Although the flute is usually played by a human, the flute can also be played by an animal. It has been suggested that the sounds of a flute can be heard from the other side, hence its importance in Dutch still-lifes. Finally, flutes were used in Dutch still-lifes to depict death because they are regarded as instruments of death. The sounds of a flute are often associated with suffering because musicians tend to play it after they have lost someone close in their lives. 


Pomegranates evoked associations with resurrection, immortality, and fertility. There are a variety of stories associated with this fruit. In one tale, an old woman was punished so her neighbors could have plenty of pomegranates. The woman did not eat the pomegranate seeds and it grew in her yard. Several years later when she died, the seeds were still there and it became a symbol of immortality because she was fed to the birds and thus made immortal. Another version suggests that Ananias was sentenced to be struck by lightening three times before he could die, but he was saved by God. He used his knowledge of medicine to make pomegranates grow when struck by lightening and he lived until Jesus returned in flesh.


In Dutch still-lifes, lobsters were used to depict the last supper of Christ. The lobster is known for its claws, which represent the apostles at the last supper. A lobster can be cooked alive and served up still moving because they are well protected in their shell. This has made lobsters a symbol of the Apostles who were protected within Jesus and had to die a painful death once taken out of His protection. 

11. Flowers

Some of the most famous Dutch still-lifes feature flowers. Flowers were often associated with death because of its symbolism. Flowers are usually white or colored, hence the association with death. The flowers in Dutch still-lifes can show life or death, depending on their color. For instance, a yellow flower can be used to depict life and a white flower can be used to depict death. Other flowers used in Dutch still-lifes include roses and daffodils which were believed to represent joy and hope for the future. 

The Takeaway

In conclusion, it has been suggested that the Dutch still-lifes of this era are an expression of a nation’s troubled conscience. The materials within the still-lifes, such as bran, milk and bread were considered precious items to any society at the time. For example, far more people were dying from famine than ever before in Dutch history during this era. On top of this, the lives of artists were very different due to the war and the plague. The lack of food and relationships led to these changes. As a deeply symbolic artform, Dutch still-lifes are also considered a form of reflection on capitalism which was increasing in Holland at this time. With capitalism comes wealth, but also poverty and inequality.