It is one of life’s smouldering ironies that smoking tobacco damages the body while holding a pipe sharpens the mind. “The pipe,” the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray once wrote, “draws wisdom from the lips of the philosopher and shuts up the mouths of the foolish; it generates a style of conversation contemplative, thoughtful, benevolent, and unaffected.” Nor was Thackeray alone in thinking so. Albert Einstein insisted pipes were instrumental in teasing out “calm and objective judgement in all human affairs”, while Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary invention, Sherlock Holmes, famously measured out the complexity of crime in pinches and puffs: “it is quite a three-pipe problem”.

Curved quizzically into question marks, pipes are the very shape of thought. They are as temperamentally transformative as they are physically compromising. If a writer or artist wants to interject an air of meditation into a scene, the interposition of a pipe is the shortest of shorthands for doing so. The Dutch Old Masters made great use of the pipe smoker, and later artists such as Paul Cézanne and James McNeill Whistler would recast him as an allegory of life’s slow exhalation into air. (Vincent van Gogh auditioned himself several times in the role of the pipe-wielding contemplative.)

When the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte wanted us to reflect on the inherent disconnection between representations of reality and reality itself, he did not scrawl across his provocative canvas The Treachery of Images (1928-29) “this is not a glass”, “... or a tree”, “... or a chair”, but rather “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”: “this is not a pipe”.

As a prop, the pipe has slowly sculpted itself since its earliest appearances in Dutch Golden Age painting of the 17th Century into something intensely philosophical – a cue to the eyes that the scene they behold is an allegory to muse upon: a meditation on life, not life itself. Until now. An extraordinary photo, taken by the AFP’s Joseph Eid in the battle-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo, has forced us to rethink the cultural cliché of the pensive pipe as mere metaphor. Shot in the ruined, bomb-rattled home of Mohammed Mohiedin Anis (also known as Abu Omar), a 70-year old collector of vintage cars, the image is a mute dirge to the savage devastations of war.

Sitting on the edge of his bed with his legs crossed as he listens to music on a record player, Abu Omar seems at first glance a caricature of art historical introspection – a composite of countless portraits of a nostalgic subject cradling the smooth stummel of his parabolic pipe. But the scene of utter destruction in which Abu Omar’s romantic frame incongruously sits (from the shattered shutters shielding paneless windows to the shrapnel strewn carpet and bedspread) is all too literal and unstaged – an admonishment for blurring the boundaries between life and art. What we see is not an imagined projection of interior introspection or a fanciful tableau woven from waftings of symbolic smoke. No, this is not a pipe. It’s something far more powerful than that.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.