A short research of apple images on the web has produced a very huge number of examples both in fine and commercial arts which show how the apple has been used throughout the centuries as a powerful symbol resonating with multiple and even contradictory meanings. As a symbol it looks very complex and ambiguous. I made a personal selection of images and looked into the apple has been considered in different visual contexts.
This and the following picture (Figs. 1 and 2) are two examples of Venus holding the apple which had been assigned to her by Paris of Troy (Fig. 5). In this case the apple appears to be associated to beauty, love, fertility and sexuality and this seems to be one of its fundamental meanings that reverberates powerfully throughout human visual culture.
In Figure 3 Adam and Eve eat the apple accepted from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In this case the apple seems to be an even more complex symbol: the forbidden fruit represents sin, the temptation of knowledge or immortality or a combination of both on the part of mankind, the consequent loss of innocence and fall of mankind. In any case the apple takes on an ambiguous value, the desire of beauty and freshness may be dangerous.
It is not difficult to see a connection between the forbidden apple of the Garden of Eden and the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides from the Greek mythology (Figure 4). There is a different pagan overtone here, and probably no sense of guilt associated with the stealing. Hercules is a hero that defies the gods in search of immortality. The roundness of the apple helped perhaps its association with perfection and immortality.
The apple as a symbol of beauty and immortality appears in another connected myth, that of the three goddesses who claimed the apple (Figure 5): Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and of Paris of Troy who was named to award the apple to the most beautiful among them and chose Aphrodite. (Figs. 1 and 2).
Figure 6 below shows how the meaning of the apple has evolved with time in Christianity. In it it’s the Infant Jesus who holds the apple, now seen as a positive symbol of redemption from the fall of man.
Perhaps this ambiguous mixture of good and bad, and by analogy the double nature of knowledge as progress and advancement on one side and of defiance and sin on the other, represented by the apple, is contained also in the Apple name and logo (Fig. 7). I think that the bite in the apple maybe represents the original sin and in it there is possibly also a pun with the word “byte”.
In Figure 8, in which the goddess Idun from the epic northern poem Edda gives apples to the gods, the apple seems again to be linked with the idea of eternal youthfulness and immortality.
The half poisoned apple in the Snow White tale from the Grimm brothers is not easy to interpret. Perhaps the fact that is half delicious and half poisoned represents beauty and its dangers and the inevitability of growing and losing innocence.
Figure 10 is one of the numerous paintings by Magritte in which the apple makes its mysterious presence. It’s difficult to tell what exactly the apple meant for him. In this respect it may be interesting to read his own words: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”.(http://www.renemagritte.org)
It means perhaps that when we are confronted with something we have to ask ourselves questions and not to take passively for granted what we see. In this case the apple might be a symbol of what is hidden and mysterious.
Figures 11 and 12 may seem more simple but I know by now from … Magritte and my budding semiotic studies that everything deserves attention and that there are only simplistic answers to complex questions!
It seems to me that in both figures the apple is showed as something fresh, healthy and genuine, and above all intimately connected to our bodies. In the first an apple may be healed with a plaster like the cuts in our own flesh and in the second the apples are shown in front of a woman’s torso like two breasts. So perhaps the apple has been chosen because it feels and looks alive and has strong good health connotations.
The analogy with the delicacy of flesh seems obvious also in this painting by John Currin (Figure 13): the apples and the breasts of the woman in the foreground are visually connected in shape, texture and colour and emanate sensuality and temptation, and possibly also the fragility and delicacy of beauty.
Figure 14 is an enchanting portrait of the artist’s wife while pregnant and I think that the apples she is carrying may symbolize fertility.
In Figure 15, a still life with apples by Cézanne, apples with their brilliant colours and their rustic arrangement communicate a feeling of simplicity and natural, genuine values.
The same values of nature and authenticity are brought forward by the juicy looking apples against a background of mountains of Figure 16, an advertisement of the Fifties.
As a last example I come full circle with a citation of a work by Sam Taylor-Wood that I had studied in Part 1 on Contemporary Art, where the decaying apples indicate the frailty and the brevity of life and beauty in the tradition of the vanitas paintings.
As a conclusion I make an attempt at a table of the apples as signifiers and of their corresponding signifieds in the Figures examined.
Signifier in Figure Signified
Apple 1 means beauty, love, fertility, sexuality
Apple 2 means beauty, love, fertility, sexuality
Apple 3 means sin, temptation, knowledge, fall
Apple 4 means perfection, immortality
Apple 5 means beauty, immortality
Apple 6 means redemption
Apple 7 means progress, defiance
Apple 8 means youth, immortality
Apple 9 means growing, innocence lost
Apple 10 means mystery
Apple 11 means good health
Apple 12 means good health
Apple 13 means sensuality, temptation, delicacy
Apple 14 means fertility
Apple 15 means nature, simplicity
Apple 16 means authenticity, good health
Apple 17 means brevity of life
I notice that in a table like this it is necessary to simplify since in reality meanings often overlap and intermingle in the same picture.
All in all it appears that the apple is a very rich and complex symbol that can take on several meanings (signifieds) in different contexts. They may seem very different on the surface but if we look closely they are born out of a common root. The beauty, freshness, roundness of the apple as a fruit may imply good health, simplicity, beauty, sensuality, fertility and immortality on a bright side and also turn itself into sin, temptation, frailty and looming death on a more obscure side. In many cases positive and negative values coexist or are connected.
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1864-68) Venus Verticordia [oil on canvas] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25541895 (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 2. Mauch, Daniel (between 1530 and 1540) Venus Holding an Apple [boxwood sculpture] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18794608 (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 3. Dürer, Albrecht (1507) Adam and Eve [oil on panel] At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150385 (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 4. (between 201 and 250 AD) Hercules stealing the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria [opus tessellatum]
At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=666860 (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 5. Belli, Valerio (ca. 1520-30) The Judgement of Paris [rock crystal intaglio] At: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O89178/the-judgement-of-paris-intaglio-belli-valerio/ (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 6. Robbia, Luca della (1455-60) Madonna and Child (Madonna of the Apple) [glazed terracotta] At: www.conceptualfinearts.com/cfa/luca-della-robbia-madonna-and-child-madonna-of-the-apple-1455-60-glazed-terracotta-berlin-bode-museum/ (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 7. Apple Logo Evolution (1976-2003)
At: http://theopenscroll.blogspot.it/2011/01/part-12-see-its-i-of-horus-occult-apple.html (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 8. Penrose, James Doyle (1890) Idun and the Apples [print] At: http://www.art.com/products/p1775875143-sa-i4208586/james-doyle-penrose-idun-and-the-apples-illustration-from-teutonic-myths-and-legends-by-donald-a-makenzie-1890.htm (Accessed 17/02/17)
Figure 9. Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [print] At: http://dopey1937.disneyfansites.com/english011.html (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 10. Magritte, René (1952) The Listening Room [oil on canvas] At: http://www.renemagritte.org/the-listening-room.jsp (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 11. Band-aid advertisement
At: s3images.coroflot.com/user_files/individual_files/original_385224_zBHG9zHIEQ4zRGMqlrDfQlyCf.jpg (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 12. Illustration in blog At: http://www.healthyfoodhouse.com/apples-health-benefits/ (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 13. Currin, John (2015) Maenads [oil on canvas] At: http://artdependence.com/issue/august-2016/article/symbolism-in-art-the-apple (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 14. Macke, August (1909) Portrait with Apples [oil on canvas] At:https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Macke,_August_-_Portrait_with_Apples_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg(Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 15. Cézanne, Paul (1878-9) Bowl with Apples [oil on canvas] At: http://www.infobarrel.com/Apples_in_Art (Accessed 20/02/17)
Figure 16. Blue Mountain advertisement At: http://www.antiquelabelcompany.com/store/BLUE-MOUNTAIN-Washington-Apple-crate-label-art-in-FRAME-p75.html
Figure 17. Taylor-Wood, Sam (2001) Still Life [35mm film/DVD, duration: 3’18’] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJQYSPFo7hk (Accessed 20/02/17)