Analyzing art/Symbols

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Symbols[edit]

Red octagon functions as a "stop" sign even when blank

Symbols in visual arts represent concepts or ideas not necessarily directly connected with the image, but understood by the viewer on the basis of his background knowledge. Some symbols are immediately obvious, while others require the viewer to put more effort to grasp their meaning. Symbols are used for many reasons: they may convey a message which would otherwise be difficult or impossible to render in a work of art; through them an author can easily draw connections with a viewer. Symbols have huge interpretational potential and hence are commonly used in all kinds of visual arts, adding dimension to the work's meaning and possible impact.

Myths and symbols[edit]

Since antiquity, certain mythological figures, creatures and stories have been represented in visual arts by means of attributes, which with time acquired symbolical value recognizeable throughout the world. The Wikipedia page "Greek Mythological figures" provides a list of attributes through which particular characters/gods depicted in either paintings, reliefs or sculptures can be recognized.

Exercise[edit]

Check your ability to recognize Greek characters based on short descriptions on this Smithsonian Education website.

Symbols as... proverbs[edit]

You have probably heard about a famous Netherlandish Renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The master in what seems an unorderly and colorful chaos, Bruegel used various symbols to furnish his works with deeper meanings, sometimes even a moral. Take a look at the Netherlandish Proverbs. A messy, vibrant composition typical for this artist does not indicate the work's hidden meaning. The title does - and upon this realization, one begins to notice literal representations of common proverbs.

Bruegel Proverbs
Proverbs marked

Here are some of them:

  • To bang one's head against a brick wall
  • To be armed to the teeth
  • What can smoke do to iron?
  • To always gnaw on a single bone
  • It depends on the fall of the cards
  • The world is turned upside down
  • Sharks eat smaller fish


Reading symbols[edit]

Gustave Moreau: Self-portrait

For whatever reason used, symbols rarely appear as obvious elements of composition. Their primary function is to add meaning in a way which is not immediately clear. Symbols need to be first spotted, then deciphered and only then interpreted - which constitutes both challenging and entertaining aspect of visual art. Reading symbols requires background knowledge of various fields: history, mythology, religion and history of art, to name just a few. But do not worry if you are not an expert in these - lacks in this knowledge can be easily made up for, as all needed information can be found in libraries or in the Internet. But to grasp the enigmatic picture drawn within the work of art by means of symbols, one also needs to be perceptive and sensitive to the slightest hints of hidden meaning.

Let us take a look at one of the most prominent Symbolist painters: Gustave Moreau. The artist used the themes that have already been discussed: mythological and biblical allusions and figures. Moreau always began his work with a sketch, which was then developped into a painting. He left many unfinished projects that have never been elaborated upon, and Les Chimeres constitute an example of that. Held in the National Museum of Gustave Moreau in Paris, the sketch proves to be a great exercise for everyone, who wants to try a hand at interpreting figures and objects that are seemingly no more than "silent" parts of composition.

Exercise[edit]

Visit the National Museum of Gustave Moreau's website and browse through the details of "Les Chimeres" without reading the description below. Try to draw conclusions as to the meaning of composition and objects depicted in the painting: do not hesitate to propose your own interpretation, even if you feel it might be far-fetched. Once a story that the picture tells becomes clear in your head, read the official interpretation in the description and verify your own observations. Remember that "official" does not mean "the only" and you are allowed to understand any work of art in the way that feels most suitable to you.

Hands-on experience[edit]

Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors - Google Art Project

Knowing all that has been discussed above, we may move on to actual analysis of symbols incorporated into one of the most famous paintings in the world: The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. Seemingly an uncomplicated portrait of two men, the painting is in fact a statement that the critics cannot agree on. What is certain is that the two men, dressed in their best garments, stand in front of a case filled with various objects. So let that be the first thing we take a closer look at. The lower shelf displays a number of everyday-use objects: a globe, an arithmetic book, a lute, a lutheral hymnal, a dagger and folded maps. The upper shelf holds objects which are far from being merely 'earthly': an astronomical instrument called torquetum, a sundial, a quadrant and a celestial globe. From this clear division into 'heavenly' and 'earthly' objects we can already deduce that the painting might be saying something more than it appears to. Let's now think about the possible meanings of the objects we have already listed.

  • The globe: shows Europe in the most prominent position, and Africa below it.[1] Need we say more?
  • The arithmetic book: not accidentaly open to the page demonstrating division [2]
  • The broken string of the lute: disharmony, tension. Of what? See below:
  • The lutheral hymnal: because it is right next to the lute, it can be interpreted as the tension between the Protestant and Catholic churches.[3]
  • The maps: the age of exploration, mapping the world.
  • The torquetum, the sundial, the quadrant and the celestial globe: "an array of instruments and apparatus for mastering the heavens and gaining precise knowledge of time and place, for navigating the globe and mapping and recording geographical findings claims the viewers attention." [4]

Let us now focus on other objects appearing in the painting:

  • Gloves: symbol of luxury, worn by the upper-class
  • The dagger: symbol of authority
  • Clothes: pink and black can hint at snobbery, French elegance; friar’s knots are symbols of the Franciscan virtues of the clergy [5]
  • The medallion: possibly the symbol of the triumph of good over evil (some believe the the medallion represents the Order of St Michael - the archangel)
  • The crucifix (hidden in the upper left corner): the division of the church. [6]
  • The weird thing at the very center of the painting. Ah, about that... Can you identify the mysterious shape? It has been a puzzle for the viewers for long years, but all you have to do to see it in its real shape is change your point of view. Literally. It is an anamorphic representation of a skull - the symbol of death.
 For more detailed analysis of The Ambassadors, go to Mark Calderwood's website and The Anne Boleyn Files.

There are other things about "The Ambassadors" that carry some additional meaning, but since colours and composition are discussed in separate sections of this project, we will not go into them just now. Feel free to go to other sections to learn more!

References[edit]