Allegorical Art: The Five Senses

My readers probably already know that I love allegorical and symbolic paintings, and, thus, I could not resist to share and discuss a series of other ones – The Five Senses [1617-18] by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The inspiration behind them was probably a series of tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn [circa 1500], each depicting one of the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (as well as the mysterious “sixth sense”). Brueghel and Rubens’s The Five Senses now have their home in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

I. Sight

Sight Allegorical Painting

Since this painting is supposed to represent sight, it is all about art, and, in particular, paintings, which are appreciated through sight. In this painting, Venus, a Roman goddess, and Cupid, a little boy, are in a cabinet (room) of curiosities. Cupid is showing Venus one of the Christian paintings  – The Healing of the Blind Man, which is about the miraculous sight recovery of a man. Among other objects in this room are antique busts and scientific instruments, such as a telescope, which can also only be used through having vision. 

II. Hearing 

Alegorical Art Hearing

This painting represents hearing and, therefore, it is all about music, which is appreciated through listening. Here, Venus is playing a lute, while Cupid sings. The room in this painting is full of different musical instruments, and the paintings on the walls are also all about the theme of music. A stag near Venus and Cupid also stands for hearing since the animal was “a common 17th century symbol for the power of hearing” (David Yearsley). A curious thing here is the presence of clocks, which undoubtedly produce a ticking sound, meaning that even “time” is not “silent”. The broad plan of this room with nature in the background gives an impression of sound amplification, making the music travel beyond the confines of the room.  

III. Smell 

Smell Allegorical Painting

The sense of smell in this painting is represented by different flora. There are flowers of different varieties depicted here, and Venus and Cupid are enjoying their repose in the garden while inhaling various aromas of nature. In the background, one can also see two people working, meaning that flowers may also be used to make perfume. Even here, in the most natural of settings, one can sense nature being “domesticated”. This feeling is further heightened by the presence of a dog near Venus, an animal which was bred by humans for their purposes.

IV. Taste 

Taste Allegorical Painting

This painting, depicting the sense of taste, is obviously all about food. There are food all around this room and on the table, such as sea-food, bird pies and fruit. Venus is seen tasting the culinary delights, and next to her sits a satyr, who pours her generous amounts of nectar. The abundance of game in this painting is staggering, and, for the first time, we see the blurring of the boundary between the room, a human construction, and nature itself. In the left corner of the painting, there is a kitchen where a man is engaged in cooking, and one of the paintings in this room is Brueghel’s own Garland of Fruit.

V. Touch

Touch Allegorical Painting

In this painting, Venus and Cupid are engaged in sensual pleasure, kissing, among the abandoned weaponry, with the view to the arms graveyard. Venus, being the Goddess of Love, sits away from the place of weapon-making, being seemingly in her own world of sensation and culture. The abandoned suits of armour may signify the exposure of skin which can then experience tactile pleasures through physical contact. Elisabeth McFadden says that this painting as well as those above are more thought-provoking and represent human power and control over nature. For example, in this painting representing “touch”, metal, a natural element, is transformed by humans into weapons and armoury through their skill, as well as knowledge and manipulation of fire.    

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5 thoughts on “Allegorical Art: The Five Senses

  1. I’ve always wished to have one drop of the talent that amazing painters like these had. I am in awe of anyone that can create something so magical, beautiful and masterly. Great information in your comments, lots to contemplate!

    Liked by 1 person

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