Brueghels, Rubens and Lobsters

The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts unlocked some of its most cherished secrets this week to reveal more than 130 paintings by Flemish artists, among them Peter Brueghel's renowned "Four Seasons." In total, some 80 percent of the Pushkin's collection of Flemish art, with masterpieces also by Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Anthony van Dyck and Frans Snyders, is on show for the first time in the museum's history.

"We called this exhibition 'The Golden Age of Flemish Art' because this period, between the 16th and the beginning of the 18th century, really is the best one for Flemish painting," says Vadim Sadkov, head of the department of Western and American art. "Compiling this exhibition, we tried to show examples of all genres: portraits, landscapes, so-called 'ordinary life' genre-paintings and still lifes."

When it comes to describing the diversity of Flemish art and especially its dominant still lifes, the Russian 18th century poet Gavrila Derzhavin contributed a slightly more imaginative effort.

"Green cabbage soup with yolk,

White cheese, red crayfishes,

Caviar like pitch and amber

With motley bluish-scaly pike f

All resplendent are!"

If color can be tasted, now you too can feast on limpid shining grapes and rich reddish lobster with porous bright yellow lemons, not just at the restaurant but as you observe the still lifes of artists like Jan Davidsz de Heem. Make sure you read between the lines, as these food-laden paintings have an unmistakably erotic subtext. Seafood, given traditionally to newlyweds in the Netherlands, is an arch-symbol of desire, something 16th-century Flemish painters knew as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans.

In fact all Flemish still lifes symbolize something. You can read these paintings like a book. To help you, you can use the same encyclopedia by which Flemish painters plied their trade: a 17th century Flemish "Collection of Emblems" or verses by the poet Jacob Katz. Such handbooks provided the artists with schematic pictures of symbols, short slogans in Latin and explanations of what these symbols mean in three contexts: in real life, in erotic terms and in theological terms.

But many of the symbols are self-explanatory. When you see Chronos clipping the wings of Amour, you know that love flies high for only so long before passion subsides. In "Allegory of Transit," Peter van der Williage presents us with a cranium, trumpets and a bowl of soap bubbles. Life will come to an end anyway, van der Williage is telling us, even if you get your laurels and hear the glorious sound of brazen trumpets.

Then there's this portrait of two sisters-in-law, with one clasping her hands over her belly. Van Dyck's "Lady d'Aubigny and the Countess of Portland" signifies little, but it contains a curious story that has only recently come to light.

At the time of painting, the woman on the right, the Lady d'Aubigny, formerly Catherine Govaerd, had just sealed a marriage with King Charles I's distant relative George Stewart. It was a match that the king was less than thrilled with but could do little about when it turned out Govaerd was already pregnant. Van Dyck's portrait captures the two ladies in 1638; in the following year they both bore sons.

"The Golden Age of Flemish Art " runs until Nov. 7 at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, 13 Volkhonka. Tel. 203-9896/7998. Metro: Kropotkinskaya. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Monday.