The Hidden Vanitas Symbolism in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

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All good stories contain symbolism. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is full of vanitas symbols that add a new depth of meaning to a tale as old as time.

Movie still from 2017 Beauty and the Beast, with the glass-encased enchanted rose

Analyzing Beauty and the Beast: Hidden Meanings and Symbols

Since watching Disney’s gorgeous live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, I’ve been musing about the use of symbols in story. Because Beauty and the Beast has some gems.

Symbolism adds depth to a story and helps you see it in fresh and fascinating ways. Sure, you don’t have to be a symbolism treasure hunter to enjoy a story–but it’s quite fun to dip below the surface and speculate about those deeper, hidden meanings!

I remember reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school and being only mildly engaged. I loved reading, so I felt a little guilty that I found the book so boring. But when I read the novel again in college I discovered a completely different book. The linchpin was a very knowledgeable professor who showed us that The Scarlet Letter is alive with a web of beautiful and complex symbols.

Symbolism changed the way I engaged with The Scarlet Letter, and I’ve been more attuned to seeking it in stories ever since.

Beauty and the Beast contains some pretty obvious symbols, and their main purpose is to give us basic information about the leading cast of characters. For instance, the book that Belle reads in the opening village scene symbolizes her thirst for knowledge, novelty, and challenging of social norms. That book tells us just as much about her as the lyrics in her opening song.

What does the rose symbolize in Beauty and the Beast?

Perhaps the most iconic symbol in Beauty and the Beast is the glass-encased rose. A rose symbolizes love, but this particular rose is dying–just like the Beast’s hopes for true love. Even more importantly, the rose symbolizes the fragile nature of life and the Beast’s need to reform from his previous life of vanity and excess in order to restore his kingdom.

The wilting rose in Beauty and the Beast strongly echoes other dying flowers in art, particularly those used in vanitas paintings. Interpreting the rose and other symbolic items in Beauty and the Beast in light of the vanitas tradition imbues the story with fresh meaning and even spiritual significance.

What is a vanitas painting?

Vanitas is a genre of still life painting common in northern Europe during the 16th to 18th centuries. Vanitas paintings often depict a collection of luxurious, richly-detailed objects, all of which symbolize the brevity of life and the futility of worldly pleasures (the Latin vanitas means “emptiness”). If you’ve ever visited an art museum or taken an art history class, it’s a pretty sure bet you’ve seen a vanitas.

 "Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols" painting by David Bailly
Self-Portrait with Vanitas Symbols by David Bailly, 1651

The Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is set in the mid-1700s in France, and the live-action remake is as gorgeous and opulent as a vanitas painting of the period. If the rose in Beauty and the Beast borrows from this tradition of artistic symbolism, then it points to more than just the status of the Beast’s love life. Flowers are commonly used in vanitas paintings because flowers fade and die, reminding us that the beauties and luxuries of this life will pass away. Before he became the Beast, the prince in this fairy tale felt invincible; he had everything he could ask for. In his arrogance, he certainly wasn’t thinking it could all be taken away in a moment.

When Agathe the enchantress casts her spell on the castle and the prince, she gives him the enchanted rose–a constant reminder of the transience of life. Will the prince/Beast discover something that can give a deeper meaning and purpose to life, before it’s too late? Well, we’ll get to that in a moment.(:

Zoom out from the solitary rose and you’ll see many more symbols with vanitas significance in this story. In fact, two of them are so obvious that you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself that they’re not intentional. Besides flowers, two types of objects that appear in almost every vanitas painting are candles and time pieces. Sound familiar? Yep–Lumiére and Cogsworth!

Vanitas painting by Hendrick Andriessen with globe, skull, bubbles, candlestick, crown, and other vanitas symbols
Still-life composition with human skull, globe, books, crown, miter, bubbles, mussel shell with bubble pipe, holly crown on skull, watch on table, candlestick (with reflection of artist’s portrait) by Hendrick Andriessen, ca 1650

As I thought about the Beauty and the Beast movie and looked through vanitas paintings online, I came up with this list of vanitas symbols and their possible correlation in the Disney film:

Common vanitas symbols in Beauty and the Beast

  • time pieces (clocks, hourglasses, watches) – Cogsworth
  • candles – Lumiére
  • mirrors – the enchanted mirror
  • chipped crockery or glassware – Chip
  • books – the Beast’s library
  • musical instruments – Maestro Cadenza; the instrument sculptures in the ball room
  • smoke – steam from Mrs. Potts
  • dust – Plumette the feather duster
  • bubbles – Chip blowing bubbles
  • globes – various globes in the library and around the castle
  • chess board/pieces – chess set in the library
  • maps –  the map in the enchanted book
  • glass – the glass dome that covers the rose
  • luxurious objects like fancy clothes, tapestries, and jewelry – all over the castle!
Movie still of the Beast and Belle in the Beast's study from the 2017 film version of Beauty and the Beast.
The lavish set and production of Beauty and the Beast echoes the richly-detailed symbolism of a vanitas painting. (Image by Disney. Used with permission.)

Each of the vanitas objects prompt us to reflect on the nature of life and symbolize either life’s transience (think ephemeral bubbles, candles burning down) or worldly pursuits and passions (quest for knowledge in books and maps, pleasures like music and tapestries). But did anyone at Disney really intend for us to glean so much from their character and prop choices?

I my opinion, it doesn’t matter if they did or not. The symbols in this film or in any piece of story are no less important or interesting because the creator intended something different than we imagine. Stories are incredibly layered; it’s inevitable that a story will take on a life of its own. The finished work always displays a broader spectrum of meaning than the creator intended, and this meaning will continue to expand with cultural shifts.

However.

You can actually make a case that the vanitas symbols in Beauty and the Beast are intentional. The Disney team often draws inspiration from famous works of art. One recent hard-to-miss example is when Anna from Frozen leaps in front of a painting that’s clearly an adaptation of Fragonard’s The Swing. One astute Disney fan noticed that The Swing makes an appearance in the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast, too. The same fan pointed out other reproductions of famous paintings in the Beast’s palace, including Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch artist familiar with the vanitas paintings of his day.

We also know that the creators of the original 1991 Disney Beauty and the Beast visited France to glean inspiration for their art. Cogsworth references Baroque and Rococo designs as he gives Belle a tour of the castle. The live action Beauty and the Beast reinforces the lush and opulent style of mid-18th France, which can be both beautiful and garish.

What does the Beast (and what do we) learn from the symbols in Beauty and the Beast?

The Beast’s palace is basically a living vanitas painting. So, do these constant reminders of the ephemeral nature of life and worldly goods have any effect on the Beast? Yes, but at first it only seems to be a negative effect, as the Beast grows resentful and cuts himself off from humanity. The positive effects only surface when an outside force–in the form of Belle–comes into the story.

Belle and the Beast fall in love. Not at first sight, that’s for sure, but against the odds. And as their love blooms (to use some rose imagery!) things change.

Disney seems to pick up on the fact that true love is redemptive and transformative. In the opening scenes of the 2017 version, Agathe narrates that the prince/Beast “taxed the village to fill his castle with the most beautiful objects ​and his parties with the most beautiful people.​” But love turns the Beast from a vain, eat-drink-and-be-merry prince in a garish, over-the-top castle to a self-sacrificing king who’s ready to receive his people with hospitality. The prince’s rebirth is echoed in the physical changes that the castle undergoes, as well as the restored humanity of the servants.

Movie still from 2017 Beauty and the Beast, with Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Plumette.
Vanitas symbols abound in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast movie! (Image by Disney. Used with permission.)

The 2017 Beauty and the Beast movie adds this new twist with regards to the servants: if the curse isn’t lifted, they will become inanimate objects forever. They will be beautiful objects, but inanimate–serving only as an artful reminder of the vanity of a bygone era. I love this twist because it adds to the urgency of the Beast’s need to recast his approach to life. When the curse breaks, the servants shed their symbolic forms and become human once more.

Through Belle, the Beast comes to understand that life is precious and meant to be cherished–and shared. Life and his place in it is not a commodity to be consumed and squandered. Belle helps the Beast to enjoy life again, not in a selfish and indulgent way as he did before, but with a truthful, selfless love that looks outward and leaves a legacy of hope.

The new flowers that bloom when the curse is lifted will eventually die (as will the again-mortal Beast and servants), but they’ll be a living reminder that while life is fleeting, it’s also incredibly valuable.

What are some of your favourite symbols in stories? Did you notice any interesting symbols in Beauty and the Beast?

Love fairy tales and fantasy? Be sure to read these other posts here at Tea and Ink Society!

Top image by Disney. Used with permission.

The Hidden Vanitas Symbolism in Disney\'s Beauty and the Beast
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10 Comments

  1. LOVE this post! I completely agree about the vanitas symbolism. Thanks to my art history courses, I’m always on the lookout for visual “quotes,” and Beauty and the Beast consciously borrows a great deal from 18th century art and architecture. Another favorite of mine from the live version: a castle gargoyle transformed into a gilded statue of the archangel Michael slaying the dragon. It’s an age-old symbol of the powers of darkness conquered by light.

  2. To me and where my heads at. I see the people int he town represent society. Getting upset when belle is reading and teaching the little girl to read. It reminds me of the people in my life who don’t want to read and grow. Gaston represents what most people look up to in society. We tend to want to be beautiful and flashy. Instead of admiring the reader and the inventor. Belles dad is someone who raised an open-minded proud daughter who can think for herself. So most of the people belittle her out of hidden jealousy. I’m an inventor, reader, and entrepreneur. The whole story reminds me of the challenges I’ve had to overcome to be who I am. Challenges include family and friends. It symbolizes a lack of empathy and support that we show the ones trying to make the world a better place. It shows the people in the village trying to keep everyone at the same level instead of uplifting each other. Everyone feels a lot more comfortable being the same. It takes courage and fortitude to go against the grain. The clockwork of existence. Same story in the 1700s as in 2000s. I could go on and on but the story is as old as time. What a great story that I share with my kids and talk about the symbolism. What a funny group we are.

    I really enjoyed your article. Thank you

    1. Good analysis! It is a very timely and timeless story…a small town, but representative of the wider world for sure. The way it ends is very triumphant and empowering.

  3. Thanks for the great article! I love the beautiful symbolism!

    I love this line in your post.
    > “to a self-sacrificing king who’s ready to receive his people with hospitality”
    I was listening to the song, Evermore today. I found your article.
    Recently adopted 3 kids. It’s been a challenge, to say the least.

    Learning to gain a new perspective is what really matters in life.
    To these kids, it’s not the stuff, the phones, the toys.
    It’s the love, the understanding, the insight, the joy, the mastery of behavior, the things that reflect the best in humanity.

    Lyrics from Song.
    > I was the one who had it all
    I was the master of my fate
    I never needed anybody in my life
    I learned the truth too late
    I’ll never shake away the pain
    I close my eyes but she’s still there
    I let her steal into my melancholy heart
    It’s more than I can bear

    Thanks again Elise!

    1. And thank you for your comment! I have been amazed by the way my children have shaped me and my outlook on life. It sounds like you are a wonderful father and example to your children.

  4. Hi Elsie! I‘m learning to hear from God through night time dreams and I recently had a dream about my teenage daughter and in ny dream it was her Birthday and she was presented with a birthday cake and on the cake was roses in a glass. So I was searching for the meaning of this dream and came upon your post. Thank you! Your post was divinely inspired. God bless you!

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