The Connotations of Fruit in Art and Still Life Paintings

“With an apple I will astonish Paris.”
Paul Cézanne, (1839-1906)


Artistic depictions of fruit date back 3000 years to Ancient Egypt. Still life paintings of food were found in the majority of ancient Egyptian tombs, as people genuinely believed that the paintings of food items would, in the afterlife, become tangible and available for the deceased to feed on.

In Ancient Rome, decorative mosaic ‘emblema’ were found in the homes of wealthy and respected people of the upper classes. The ‘emblema’ pictured the diverse range of foods that rich Romans were able to indulge in, acted as a sign of hospitality for potential guests and served as a visual celebration of the seasons and the harvest.

Sybille Ebert Schifferer, in her work Still Life: A History, alludes that depictions of fruit in 16th-century art act as symbols of the seasons and of the senses. Schifferer adds that a type of still life, known as ontbijtjes (breakfast paintings), present both a literal representation of the delicacies that the upper class might enjoy and act as a religious reminder to avoid gluttony and excess.

In the 1500s, the discoveries of the New World and Asia led to an ardent interest in the natural world, exotic botanicals and unusual, enticing new fruits and foods. This fascination was recorded visually in the art of the time.

The condition of the depicted fruit is often allegorical. Like human life, fruit is perishable and ephemeral, and thus many critics firmly believe that fruit acts as a representation of the transient nature of our existence. When the fruit in the portrayals appears to be fresh and ripe, this stands as a symbol of abundance, bounty, fertility, youth and vitality. However, fruit that is in a state of decay serves as a reminder of our own undeniable mortality, the inevitability of change and, in some instances, as a reflection of sin and human corruption.

Depictions of fruit notably relate to portrayals of Adam and Eve and the notion of temptation, sin and entropy.

Hans Memling, Adam and Eve, circa 1485


Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, circa 1507

Eve is often depicted holding a fruit, which is most often thought to be an apple. The apple therefore has become synonymous with knowledge, corruption, immortality, temptation, the fall of man and sin, as it is associated with the Tree of Knowledge and the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.

The apple’s meaning varies according to its position. When placed in Eve’s hand, the apple can be seen as symbolism for sin, temptation and the dangerous notion of enlightened and knowledgeable females. When held in Adam’s hand, the apple symbolises the consequential fall of man. However, when Christ is portrayed holding an apple, it represents the Second Adam who brings life and redemption. The differing images of the apple reflects the evolution of the symbol in Christianity; in the Old Testament, the apple was significant of the fall of man, but in the New Testament the apple an is emblem of the redemption from that fall.

The latter notion has meant that the apple is presented in pictures of the Madonna and Infant Jesus as another sign of that redemption, and as a warning against sin and temptation.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, circa 1480

In Greek mythology, the pomegranate is synonymous with temptation, sin and fallen women, due to its inclusion in the parable of The Rape of Persephone. Hades, god of the underworld, abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter the goddess of the harvest; Persephone eats a number of pomegranate seeds whilst captured, meaning that she is obligated to spend a number of months each year with Hades in the underworld.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, circa 1873

The associations between fruit and sensuality seem to stem from both the notion of the forbidden fruit of temptation, and fruit’s fertile, tactile nature.

Sixteenth–century Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is famous for his still life paintings that feature fruit.



Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, circa 1595


Caravaggio, Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, circa 1601-1605

Many onlookers have interpreted Caravaggio’s Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge as having both religious and sexual connotations. The stone ledge that is pictured is evocative of Caravaggio’s previous work The Entombment of Christ. Critics have attested that the grotesquely serpentine gourds and the visual suggestiveness of the exposed, split fruit allude to intimate, sensual imagery.

Stephen Rose’s Peaches with Greengages and a Cherry is evocative of Caravaggio’s still life paintings with fruit. The velvet texture of the peaches appeals to the audience’s sense of touch, whilst the mottled hues create a serene, visually pleasing impression.

Stephen Rose, Peaches with Greengages and a Cherry, 2012

Stephen Rose, Colours of Autumn, 2012

Rose’s utilisation of a plastic container in Colours of Autumn offers a modern update to depictions of fruit with traditional baskets and porcelain bowls, which adds a contemporary element to an ancient genre.

Mark Mitchell Paintings & Drawings specialise in 19th and 21st century British and Continental fine art, including still life paintings and landscape paintings. For more information, or to make an enquiry regarding the Stephen Rose pieces, please do not hesitate to contact Mark Mitchell by telephone on 0207 493 8732.


Imagery Symbolism
Grapes Grapes represent fertility and salvation in their symbolic link to the blood of Christ, but also are symbolic of the dangers of debauchery.
Lemons Linked in Christian tradition to fidelity and, therefore, to the figure of the Virgin. Lemon was often an imported fruit, thus suggesting wealth and luxury.
Peaches A symbol of salvation and truth, as well as fecundity.
Apple Apples are associated with knowledge, sin, temptation, immortality, Venus, the fall of man and the image of the fallen woman.
Pomegranate Pomegranates feature heavily in Judaism and are used in religious memorials to signify heavenly sweetness, or fertility.The fruit, broken or bursting open, is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection.
Fig Strong biblical associations, as the fig tree is the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. The fig has strong connotations with modesty and sexuality, as Adam and Eve covered themselves with fig leaves.
Porcelain bowl Oriental and porcelain decorative fruit bowls suggest the exotic spoils of geographic expansion.


About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
This entry was posted in still life. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *