Depictions of fruit in art can be dated back 3000 years to Ancient Egypt, where still life paintings of food could be found in the majority of Egyptian tombs. The common belief of the era was that these artistic representations would become tangible in the afterlife, permitting the deceased to feast upon them.
Decorative mosaic ‘emblema’ could be found in the homes of the wealthy in Ancient Rome. The portrayed range of foods signified hospitality for potential guests. This ‘emblema’ was also a visual celebration of the seasons.
Allegory is often utilised as an extended metaphor of the ephemeral condition of life. The fruit, like human life, is intended to portray the transient nature related to our existence. Fresh fruit, represents fertility, vitality, youth, and abundance. When the fruit is in a state of decay, however, it characterises the inevitable and undeniable mortality of our presence in the world.
Apples have a strong connection with the Bible, the fall of man, and original sin. They are also associated with temptation, knowledge, and youthfulness. In China, apples embody peace, and in other traditions they indicate wisdom and joy.
Similar to apples, figs are often associated with the Garden of Eden, as Adam and Eve covered their nakedness with fig leaves. Islamic tradition refers two forbidden trees in Eden, one fig tree and one olive tree. Greek and Roman mythology see figs associated with Dionysus (or Bacchus) the god of drunkenness and wine, and with Priapus – a satyr who symbolised sexual desire.
Fertility and salvation are interconnected with the portrayal of grapes in art due to their symbolic link to the blood of Christ. Its association with the Roman god Bacchus also imbues it with the meaning of debauchery and drunkenness.
Often associated with female fertility, the pomegranate was considered sacred to Venus and Juno. Contrastingly, the pomegranate is on times linked to the famous myth of Proserpina and Pluto. Pluto stole Proserpina away to the underworld and her mother, Ceres, was in such distress of losing her daughter that the land withered and grew cold. The Fates had a rule that if one eats in the underworld, they are kept there for eternity.
Proserpina ate seeds from a pomegranate before being rescued, which unknowingly condemned her to stay in the underworld between autumn and winter. The pomegranate is one of the forbidden fruits in the Eleusinian Mystery initiations due to the aforementioned connotations.
Artistic representations of pears can draw inspiration from the ancient Chinese belief of a pear’s symbol of immortality. The word ‘li’ means both “pear” and “separation”, which can allude to stronger meanings between feelings when in paintings.
Specific fruits have different symbolic meanings they’ve acquired through time, due to myths and legends of varied cultures. Fruits intermingle the background and with the colours artists choose to represent diverse events and evoke various emotions.