“A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame.”
- W.B Yeats
The apple presents itself as a simple fruit, yet it is relevant to many disciplines in life, from Sir Issac Newton’s discovery of gravity, to Adam and Eve, to The Da Vinci Code’s Robert Langdon solving the cryptex with the password “apple.” This common fruit has been a meaningful symbol from the mythic beginning of humanity - but what exactly does the apple symbolize? How does this interpretation vary over time and cultures? What does it mean today?
Perhaps the apple's most famous connotation involves its early association with the "fruit of knowledge," hailing from the Tree of Knowledge. In this case, the apple presents a juxtaposition as it simultaneously symbolizes the source of humanity’s intellect - the most notable quality that distinguishes us from other species - as well as the source of sin on Earth - our being forever exiled from the Garden of Eden Here, the fruit’s temptation, perhaps rightfully so, leads to its consumption.
In art, the apple is the quintessential starting point for artists, and a technical right of passage as they experiment with lighting, form and colour. Due to its versatility, the object is frequented by prominent neoclassicists, impressionists, cubists and surrealists alike. The apple was a favourite of Cezanne, Gaugain, and Renoir, taking center stage in famous pieces such as Rene Magritte’s "The Son of Man" where a green apple obstructs the face of the subject. However, the apple predates impressionists and can be found in Caravaggio’s famous baroque still life "basket of fruits" or artwork from the Dutch golden period artist Balthasar van der Ast, who was known for his depiction of fruits. Moreover, Albrecht Durer’s famous depiction of Adam and Eve features a luscious apple, one which serves as the main source of colour in the work, highlighting its significance, as its vivacious colour remains the ultimate temptation even for modern day viewers.
However, the University of Michigan’s dictionary of symbols offers additional interpretations. For example, the apple can be a symbol of love, referencing Greek Mythology, where Hera was offered an apple “as a symbol of fertility upon her engagement to Zeus.” The interpretation concludes that “the apple functions as a symbol for the cosmos or totality due to its nearly perfect spherical shape.” This reading may explain why Picasso is unable to capture its “reality” - simply because such perfect truths are beyond the imperfections of humans.
In summary, the apple is a timeless, universal symbol, whose importance ranges from religion, to art, to mythology. Aristotle considered every object to have a “telos”, or a purpose - so what is the apple’s meaning? Has the apple lost its relevance as the scope of its symbolism expanded? It’s hard to tell… Ultimately, the apple’s complex symbolism in the form of the humble fruit only adds to its relevance and beauty, mesmerising artists and creators alike for generations to come.
“Apple.” Umich.edu, umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/A/apple.html#:~:text=It%20can%20mean%20love%2C%20knowledge. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
“Apple Symbolism in Art.” Arthive, arthive.com/encyclopedia/68~Apple_symbolism_in_art.
“William Butler Yeats Quote.” A-Z Quotes, www.azquotes.com/quote/1251139?ref=symbolism. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.
Y. Chou, Peter. “Apple Symbolism.” Www.wisdomportal.com, 14 June 2010, www.wisdomportal.com/Poems2010/AppleSymbolism.html. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021