3 Art History Symbols that Might Surprise You

Lemons, insects and goldfinches

Christopher P Jones
7 min readJan 23, 2024

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Madonna del cardellino (“Madonna of the Goldfinch”) (1506) by Raphael. Oil on panel. 107 × 77 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Image source Wikimedia Commons

The language of art can sometimes be an enigmatic business. Allusions in the form of flowers, fruit, animals and other objects might sit in plain sight, yet their meaning is only “readable” if you know what signals to look for.

For me, this is one of the great joys of looking at art: to uncover a hidden intention in a painting, apparent only when the symbols have been identified and unravelled.

Here, I‘d like to share three surprising symbols from art history that might make you think twice about the next artwork you look at.

Lemons

For artists, lemons have long been an appealing subject due to their ability to play a dual role. Plump and vibrant on the outside, yet holding sourness within, they carry something of a sting in the tale.

Still Life with Two Lemons, a Facon de Venise Glass, Roemer, Knife and Olives on a Table (1629) by Pieter Claesz. Oil on panel. 44.5 × 61 cm. Private collection. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, the presence of a lemon in a painting should alert us principally to two conflicting ideas: that life can be a splendid, succulent thing, yet it can also be laced with bitterness.

To emphasise the point, lemons in painting are often shown in a part-peeled state, with their rind winding over the edge of a reflective pewter plate, glistening and withering in the same instant — as in Pieter Claesz’s superb Still Life with Two Lemons shown above.

Overwhelmingly, it was the Dutch still life tradition that favoured lemons as a subject matter. The fruit seemed to have a specific level of ubiquity in 17th-century Dutch society to make it both rare and familiar. Sufficiently exotic, lemons naturally indicated luxury and prosperity, whilst also being not too rare as to be obscure: lemons were both imported and grown in orangeries and hothouses in ample numbers to become a popular recipe ingredient in food and drink, as contemporary cookbooks attest.

Still Life with a Glass and Oysters (c.1640) by Jan Davidsz de Heem. Oil on wood. 25.1 × 19.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S. Image source The Met

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