If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Symbols in Art History

Through most of history, art has served to support the state, and organized religion, telling stories through pictures. Since many people, historically, were illiterate, artists used symbols to tell their stories. It's a useful way to communicate with small groups of people, but there is a problem. Over time, people forget what the symbols mean, especially when there are stories behind them. When you don't know the story, the symbol becomes meaningless. This is why so many ancient cultures are so mysterious today.

Greek Art
The art of ancient Greece revolved around mythology, with every god having his or her own symbols. Poseidon, god of the sea held a trident. Apollo and his sister Artemis both carried bows and arrows. Ares, god of war, carried a sword. And Athena wore a helm and carried a shield and spear. We understand Greek symbols because the ancient Greeks wrote about them in their histories and plays. Many symbols from Greek mythology are still used today:

The Asclepius rod is an ancient Greek symbol associated with medicine. Asclepius was the God of Medicine and Healing. The serpent, which sheds its skin is a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and wisdom.

The bowl of Hygeia is an international symbol of pharmacy. In Greek mythology, Hygeia was the daughter and assistant of Asclepius. The bowl contained a medicinal potion with the serpent of Wisdom drinking from it - the same as from Asclepius' rod.

The Caduceus is an ancient symbol of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Today, it represents business, negotiation, and eloquence.

The Cornucopia, also known as the Horn of Plenty, is a Greek symbol of harvest abundance and prosperity. It is a spiraling horn-shaped basket filled with grains and fruit.

Medieval Christian Symbols

Medieval and Gothic art is full of symbolism, but it's hard to read, not just because the work is old, but because of the context of what's happening in each artwork. A key, for example, can have ten different meanings depending on where it's placed, and what it's next to. Medieval Christians borrowed some symbols from ancient civilizations. For example, they used the Egyptian eye of Horus (an eye in a triangle) to symbolize God. They also used the Greek Symbols alpha (A) and omega (Ω) to represent God. There are countless symbols in medieval art. Here are the basics:


White, Pink, and Blue - These colours typically represented innocence and purity, particularly of the virgin Mary. White also suggested marriage. Indigo blue was one of the most expensive colours to make, so using it only with Mary's clothing was a way to make her special.

Purple - this was a kingly colour, and was used often with Jesus.

Green - represented Jesus' baptism (krst), resurrection (vzkriesenie), and ascension into heaven (Nanebovstúpenie).

Yellow - represented the light of heaven and miracles.

Red and Orange - were symbolic of sins, such as greed and lust. They also represented the fires of hell.

Grey, Black, and Brown - were colours of the grave, used often with Jesus' cross.


Animals have always featured prominently in culture and symbolism. The temple of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, dates back to 10,000 BC, and has animals carved into its pillars. In America, many native tribes have used animals in their names. The Chinese calandar uses an animal zodiac to describe yearly changes, and the Greek zodiac is used to describe people's personalities.

Medieval Christians thought that animals could see your true soul, and knew if you were good or bad. They would use dogs during trials - if it growled at the accused, he was a heretic or witch. If a raven nested in the roof of someone's house, people might burn it down. The following meanings come from Medieval Christian art:

Ape - represented lust.
Bear - represented St. Seraphim of Serov, a monk who befriended animals.
Birds - Birds had a variety of meanings in medieval art. A bird with a key in its mouth represented salvation (spasenie):
            Dove - peace, innocence, and the holy spirit.
            Finch - represented a soul returning to heaven.
            Sparrow - especially by a window represented someone dying. If one landed on your head, it meant you were a good, pious (zbožný) person.
            Peacock - with it's feathers that look like eyes represented vigilance (pozornosť).
            Rooster - also represented vigilance, and the apostle St. Peter.
            White Peacock - represented marriage, eternal life, and narcissism.
            Phoenix - symbolized resurrection.
            fat Pidgeon - represented laziness and gluttony (obžerstvo).
            Vulture - represented greed and corruption.
            Brown Duck - symbolized evil.
            White Duck - represented purity and innocence.
            Swan - also represented purity, as well as St. Hugh of Lincoln.
Crow or Raven - Represented the Devil's assistants. A crow with a married couple represented infidelity. A crow with a holy person symbolized temptation. A crow holding silver represented Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. However, a raven was also used as the symbol of St. Oswald.
Robin - when singing represents deliverance from evil. When caged represents God is angry with someone.
Eagle - symbol of Jesus and baptism.

Bull & Donkey - Often present in nativity scenes. The bull represents faith and piety (zbožnosť), because he bows to the baby Jesus, while the donkey ignores him. The bull was also a symbol for St. Thomas Aquinas.
Camel - represented the Egyptian St. Mennas.
Cat - symbolized Satan and witchcraft.
Dog - symbolized loyalty.
Ermine - funny enough, might represent truth and fidelity, or mischief. Also represented royalty.
Fish - was one of the earliest symbols for Jesus. In fact, the Greek name for fish, ιχθύς,  is actually an anagram for, "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour." Fish may also represent the apostles, who were "fishers of men." Fish prepared as a dinner with bread and wine represents the Eucharist. Different fish had different meanings:
            Cod - a woman holding a cod was saintly. A man holding a cod was devilish.
            Dolphin & Whale - resurrection, patience, and mercy.
            Shark - death, destruction, and sin.
Goat - symbolized the Devil, poor guy.
White Horse - represented victory and invincibility (nepremožiteľnosť).
Insects - had a variety of meanings:
            Ant - symbolized murder and destruction.
            Bee - symbolized martyrdom, sacrificing his life for others.
            Beetle - symbolized salvation and eternal life.
            Butterfly & Caterpillar - symbolized the life cycle, and rebirth.
            Cicada - symbolized prayer, safety, and hope.
Dragonfly - symbolized freedom and free will.
Flies and Maggots - represented decay and death. A fly over a nobleman indicated corruption. A fly over a woman indicated lust and infidelity.
Firefly - represented youth, hope, and young love.
Ladybug - represented healing.
Wasp - symbolized the Devil and his assistants.
Lamb - primarily symbolized Jesus, but also innocence and peace.
Lion - as a symbol of power, it could represent Jesus and wisdom or Satan and tyranny.
Lion with Wings - represented St. Mark the Evangelist.
Otter - represented St. Cuthbert, who loved animals.
Ox with Wings - represented St. Luke the Evangelist.
Pig - symbolized greed (chamtivosť) and gluttony, obviously.
Snake - symbolized Satan, the tempter of mankind. He can often be found hiding in paintings, showing that someone is secretly with the devil. Funny enough, artists portrayed St. John the Evangelist holding a snake in a cup as one of his symbols - possibly coming from ancient Greek bowl of Hygeia.
Spider - symbol of evil. A spider web near a person meant he was plotting evil plans. A spider on an apple symbolized Eve's temptation. A spider on a cup represented infidelity.
Unicorn - a symbol of innocence and chastity (cudnosť), because only a virgin girl could tame it.
Wolf - Although they were often hunted and killed in real life, in art they represented mercy. St. Francis of Assisi often befriended wolves.

Bread - especially with wine, represented the body of Jesus.
Fruit -
            Apple - original sin, and carnal sins.
            Fig - loss of innocence and fall from grace. Adam and Eve used fig leaves to make the first clothes.
            Grapes - symbolized lust.
            Lemon - symbolized a bitter and resentful heart.
            Orange - symbolized free will, and also wealth, because they were expensive in Europe.
            Peach - symbolized virtue and honour, unless it was rotten or half eaten. Then it represented a loss of honour.
            Pear - Symbolized fidelity, and St. Catherine.
            Pomegranate - symbolized eternal life and also St. Catherine.
            Strawberry - symbolized harmony and religious nourishment.
Rabbit - on a platter represented fertility.
Wheat - represented the bread of the Eucharist. A grain of wheat represented resurrection and the cycle of life. A crow with wheat in its mouth indicated addiction to alcohol and/or adultery. Wheat scattered on the ground indicated a wasted life.
Wine - represented the Eucharist, Jesus' blood and sacrifice.
Man Made Things:

Anchor - was a symbol of faith and hope because it represented the safe arrival of a ship back at harbour. It was also a substitute for the cross before Christianity was legal. It also represents St. Clement who was thrown into a stormy sea, tied to an anchor.
Book - could have a variety of meanings. The Evangelists often hold a book representing the New Testament. An open book could symbolize education, knowledge, and submission to the word of God. If pages were torn out, it meant someone had rejected this knowledge and God.
Broom - symbolized marital faith and fidelity.
Candle - a single candle represented Jesus' sacrifice, and God's presence. If the candle were burned out, it symbolized a lack of faith and piety.
Chalice - symbolized consecration and the Eucharist. Anyone holding a chalice was a servant of God.
Clock/Hourglass - represented time, fate, and death. A clock with no hands symbolized that man can't control his fate.
Coins - on a Bible symbolized that someone cared more about money than God. Coins with a knife showed that someone cared more about money than human life.
Cross - symbolized Jesus' sacrifice for the sins of the world. The cross was actually a popular symbol before Jesus' time, in ancient Egypt and Sumeria.
Curtains - especially when fluttering, represented a meeting of heaven and earthly worlds.
Inkwell - symbolized broken promises. If at the table of a saint, it represented martyrdom.
Jug & Washbasin - symbolized cleanliness, and forgiveness of sins.
Kettle - an overturned tea kettle represented a loss of faith.
Keys - Had many different meanings:
            Crossed Keys - symbolized St. Peter, keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
            Key on a Pillow - symbolized marital fidelity.
            Key by a Lock - symbolized free will.
            Key in a Lock - represented acceptance of Jesus as saviour.
            Key near Fruit - represented a corrupted and lustful soul.
            Key under a Book - represented a sinner, and having committed some sin.
            Key lying on the Floor - represented someone's who was totally corrupt and lost.
Lute - symbolized romantic love.
Mirror - symbolized vanity or introspection.
Nails - symbolized the crucifixion, of course.
Pillow - A red pillow represented a horrible sinner.
Toy - represented innocence.
Window - when dirty indicated a physical illness such as leprosy or venereal disease.

Arrows - symbolized death and martyrdom, specifically the saints Edmund and Sebastian.
Battle Axe - Was the symbol of Saints Simon and Matthias. An axe or sword leaning against a wall represented death. Left in wood, an axe symbolized Satan's presence and temptation.
Club - symbolized St. Jude.
Knife - symbolized St. Bartholomew, especially three knives.
Pitchfork - symbolized the Devil.
Scourge - symbolized punishment. With a pillar, it represented the passion of Jesus.
Silver Shield - with a serpent intertwined with a bloody sword, symbolized the false prophet.
Red Shield - symbolized St. Paul.
Blank Shield - symbolized Judas Iscariot.
Sword - symbolized fighting, bravery, and martyrdom. The sword represented St. Paul and the Archangel Michael. Crossed swords represented a high ranking military officer. A broken sword symbolized the eradication of evil.
Whip - could symbolize domination, slavery, or penance for sins.

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