Project 3, Exercise 1: What does this apple mean?

The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden as told in the Book of Genesis has been painted by many artists. Although the biblical text speaks only of Eve eating and subsequently offering Adam "fruit," Hendrick Goltzius—like every other artist—has represented the fruit in question as an apple. Because of this portrayal, the apple has come to represent a pleasing temptation that leads to sin and dire consequences.

Hendrick Goltzius,  The Fall of Man . Oil on canvas, 1616.

Hendrick Goltzius, The Fall of Man. Oil on canvas, 1616.

Centuries later, Disney Studios used the offer of an apple again as a signifier of a tempting threat with terrible consequences, as the evil Queen in disguise holds up shining, red fruit that Snow White is unable to resist.

Still from  Snow White.  Disney Studios, 1937.

Still from Snow White. Disney Studios, 1937.

For all the association of the apple as a signifier of temptation and evil since biblical times, it has also been used in the Christian tradition to different effect. Lucas Cranach the Elder, for example, uses the apple theologically to make the point that Christ has overcome the effects of the Fall. Seen this way, the apple signifies new life and fruitfulness through salvation rather than death and despair through disobedience.

Lucas Cranach the Elder,  The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree.  1525–1530.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Virgin and Child under an Apple Tree. 1525–1530.

The Belgian surrealist painter, René Magritte, takes a different direction altogether with the apple. In his painting, The Son of Man, an unidentified male figure in business attire has his features concealed by a large green apple with leaves still attached. Only the very edges of the man's eyes may be seen. The scene might be mundane except for the fact that one of the man's elbows appears to bend the wrong way and the apple floats in mid-air. The apple is full of life but serves only to conceal. It is one of the smallest visual elements in the picture but it covers exactly what we want to see: the man's face. It is a frustrating painting, then, because it conceals information rather than furnishing it. If the apple is a signifier, it is one that points to less meaning, rather than more. We think we know what we are looking at, but we understand less than we should. (Magritte would take a similar approach with the figure of a dove—another rich symbol—in Man in a Bowler Hat, also painted in 1964.)

René Magritte,  The Son of Man.  1964.

René Magritte, The Son of Man. 1964.

More recently, a stylized apple has become instantly recognizable as the corporate logo for Apple Inc. Although it was originally multi-coloured, the apple is now most often seen in monochrome but is just as easily recognized because of its distinctive outline. The outline is said to be missing a bite in order to give the apple scale (relative to the size of a human bite) to ensure that the figure would not be mistaken for a cherry. In this case the signifier points simply to the name of the company—chosen because of Steve Jobs' work in an apple orchard—rather than having symbolic weight.

First official Apple corporate logo, used from 1977 until 1998

First official Apple corporate logo, used from 1977 until 1998

Even in this small collection of examples, the range of things signified by the figure of an apple is wide. Most of the potential meanings depend on relationship to other systems of signs (myth and story; other artistic works; knowledge of corporate names) and the apple can be used to designate the extremes of risk or health. A thread running through a number of the uses point to the apple's ability to conceal: what it appears to be may not be what it contains. Or the figure of the apple itself may conceal the face that lies behind it. Or the outline of a natural fruit may give a friendlier face to the reality of the high-tech corporation that lies behind it.