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Decoding Symbols in Art

"It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognise symbolical worth, and prize it highest." Carlyle In art, a symbol is something recognizable that stands for or represents something else - an idea or concept that would be hard to draw or paint, such as love or hope for eternal life. The symbol could be from nature, like a flower or the sun, or a man-made object; something from mythology; a color; or it could even be something made up by the individual artist.

It’s a sad thing, but hardly surprising. The symbolic language of art is a language we barely speak anymore. For me, one of the greatest pleasure of visiting an art gallery is in exploring the possible meanings of the works on display. "Every picture tells a story" after all.

Yet for many visitors the language of art is a mystery. For centuries, artists have drawn on a rich collection of stories, from ancient Greek and Roman myths to the stories told in the Old and New Testaments. As the centuries passed, a language of symbols developed so that artists could tell these stories with deeper and more intricate emphasis. There are some symbols that have held consistency in their meaning and make recurrent appearances in prominent masterpieces.

The deeper you delve into the art, the more intriguing and open to interpretation it becomes.

The world of art is the bridge between past, present and future, in order to understand it you have to become one with it, hence we will take a look at the secrets hidden to the uninitiated in them.

"Allegory of Music" by Fillipino Lippi (c. 1500)

Swan in general symbolizes purity. Leda and the Swan by Leonardo Da Vinci is a painting that is now lost but whose many copies exist. It depicts Leda who is naked and is being seduced by Swan or Jupiter. The babies are shown to hatch out of eggs that she laid as a result of copulation between human and bird. Another version was done by Michelangelo which shows Leda in a reclining position was also destroyed. Even the peaceful composition Allegory of Music by Fillipino Lippi draws inspiration from Leda and the Swan.

"St. Lucy" by Francesco Zaganelli (c. 1475-1532)

Here is a painting of St. Lucy by the Italian painter Francesco Zaganelli. The green palm leaf she is holding in her left hand tells us straight away that she is saint who came to her death because of persecution. The association of palm leafs with saintliness comes from the feast of Palm Sunday, a celebration in Christianity commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem when palm branched were placed along his path.

"Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels" by Quentin Massys (c. 1466-1530)

Here is just one detail is always worth looking out for. The symbolism of an apple was sometimes taken up by painters when depicting the infant Jesus. For instance, in this painting by Quentin Matsys, which shows the Christ Child held by his mother. Now, if you look closely to the left side of the painting, at the bottom of the column is an apple. Why an apple? In fact, apples are one of the most prevalent fruit in all Western art, and have several meanings depending on the context. Apples also appear in depictions of Greek myths, but probably most well-known of all apples is the one that Eve offered Adam in the Garden of Eden.

According to the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were the first humans, created by God in his own image. God placed them in the Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise where the only rule was not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Unfortunately, a serpent tempted Eve to eat some of the "forbidden fruit", and when she also gave some to Adam, they both recognized their nakedness and covered themselves with a fig leaf. This symbolic act was in recognition of their shame at disobeying God's orders.

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.



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