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When is food not food, but something else entirely? In paintings. Okay, that may be stating the obvious. If we agree with René Magritte, who painted Ceci n’est pas une pipe ("This is not a pipe”) beneath a painting of a pipe—to highlight that, though we may look at the painting and say “That’s a pipe” it is, in fact, only a painting of a pipe, then you’ll say, “Sure, a painting of food is not food—it’s a painting of it."
But just because there are foodstuffs in a painting does not mean that the artwork has anything to do with lunch.
Welcome to what famous mid-century art historian Irwin Panofsky called “disguised symbolism.” Objects included in paintings that represent ideas, containing a hidden meaning. Knowing what they represent requires some prior knowledge. It’s like learning a new language.
Some of them will be obvious to anyone. A winged hourglass? It should recall the term “time flies.” A dog beside his master? Representative of loyalty. But other symbols are more subtle. For example fish and eggs symbolise Christ, oil is associated with religious rites, while the mortar and pestle can sometimes symbolise copulation and so on.
Of course there are paintings in which food is just food. Paul Cezanne’s Still Life with Apples and Pears is a study in perspective, but the apples and pears don’t symbolise anything. But particularly in the pre-modern era, still-life paintings were considered of minimal importance — the biggest artists wanted to do big history paintings, portraits of important figures, and mythological or religious scenes. That’s where the big money and the prestige were.
Prior to the 19th century, paint and materials were quite expensive, and so artists would not want to use up materials, or spend valuable time painting without a purpose. There was no tradition of just throwing in a detail for fun. If an artist bothered to paint something, there had to be a reason behind it.
Let’s take a look at one artwork that feature food, but carry secrets within.
Oranges in the corner
Often referred to as The Marriage Contract, The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (by Jan van Eyck, 1434) requires a whole book to dissect. But the trick of it is that it seems to depict a marriage ceremony taking place in the home of a member of the Arnolfini family, wealthy Italian merchants who worked in Flanders.
Marriage ceremonies at the time required only the presence of two witnesses and the couple holding hands and reciting a vow. The couple are barefoot, suggesting that a holy ceremony is taking place. If you squint you can see two people reflected in the convex mirror at the back, one with a blue turban, one with a red – the artist, Jan van Eyck, liked to paint himself wearing a red turban, so that’s him. He also signed the work prominently, right in the middle, centuries before artists normally signed their work – suggesting that this painting functions as a contract, signed by one of the witnesses.
There’s a dog, symbolising the loyalty of the couple to one another, and those are oranges on the window ledge. Does this mean that the Arnolfini family really loved citrus, and without a fridge, preferred to leave it around their bedroom? No, you guessed it – the oranges are representative of the prosperity and wealth of the family. An orange is a symbol of prosperity in Northern Renaissance paintings. This isn’t valid in Spanish art. Why? Because oranges grow in Spain and were commonplace there, of no particular status to buy and consume, whereas in Flanders they were extremely expensive, having to be laboriously imported from Spain, and therefore only consumed by the wealthy.