Friday, November 13, 2015

Symbolism in Fine Art

Penelope and Her Suitors, Waterhouse, 1912
The women resemble the maiden, mother, crone with distaff, spindle, and loom
In The Language of Pictures, David Bell speaks of the art of painting as language, a means by which human may communicate with human. He says that the urge to express is really the urge to share experience, and it is an almost universal urge; art is a way of accomplishing expression. “Penelope and Her Suitors” depicts many images from Magdalenian activities which have been preserved by illustrations and oral mythologies: the three women with spindle, distaff, loom, and thread winders are all evident in the inscriptions from Gönnersdorf. 

Paintings, like letters, are capable of an infinite number of combinations and variations; we can regard the parts of a painting to be like parts of speech. Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Art is symbolic: abstractions of thought. Much symbolism used by the masters contrasts the religious icons of the Church, in that one is esoteric; the other, exoteric,  needs to be easily understood by all. 

Popes, princes, and kings commissioned masters to create artwork. Many of these artists incorporated pagan symbolism into their masterpieces; some works were created as protective amulets, some depicted heretical spiritual beliefs such as Gnosticism. The masters esoterically preserved these suppressed philosophies in great works of art. This visual cryptography was taught to apprentices and passed on to followers by the “underground stream.” Those who were initiated understood the messages underlying the beautiful imagery. Portraits were also commissioned, and symbolism was used to denote genealogies, position, nationality, and social status. The portrait of “Napoleon on the Throne,” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1806), incorporates numerous symbols.  

Napoleon on the Throne
J. A. D. Ingres, 1806

Gibson writes the following:
1. The golden wreath on his head represents the laurel wreaths of Rome, symbolizing victory and immortality. The plant is sacred to Jupiter, imparting his protection, and the wreath resembles a nimbus under the golden halo created by the back of the throne. 

2. The scepter in his right hand is topped by a model of Charlemagne, symbolizing the new emperor’s inheritance of the great Carolingian leader. 

3. The scepter in his left hand sports an ivory hand of justice, the fingers of which form the sign of the Holy Trinity, signifying blessing. Scepters are attributes of supreme authority.
4. Bright red robes are the hallmark of Roman emperors, and costly ermine is associated with nobility. The velvet is embroidered with Napoleon’s monogram N and many bees, which among other things, represent goddess, cooperation, and prosperity.  

6. The sword is said to be Charlemagne’s, which according to the Song of Roland had mystical properties. The sword denotes justice as well as authority. 

7. The eagle woven into the rug is the king of birds, sacred to Jupiter and a symbol of supreme authority, sovereignty, and military might. It is in the center of a zodiac, representing God’s mastery of the universe. 

8. The scales of Libra on the right side of the rug denote judgment and justice.  

This portrait may or may not have been commissioned by Napoleon. It was heavily criticized after exhibition; the iconic style symbolizing an absolute ruler was considered inappropriate for an emperor who was thought to be a man of the people. Symbolism is a powerful and effective language. The use of archetypal images conveys concepts to the viewer intuitively, as Jung believed, being perceived by the unconscious, and decoded by cultural genetic memories there.

Nymph Callisto on Jupiter’s Chariot
Baldassarre Peruzzi, 1512
In this painting by Peruzzi, there are many complex astrological scenes depicting what is said to be the horoscope of Agostino Chiga, the owner of Villa Farnesina in Rome. “Nymph Callisto on Jupiter’s Chariot” is part of a decorated ceiling in the villa. Here we see the use of astrological and mythological symbolism. The mythological story of Callisto is significant; she was turned into a bear by Juno and rescued by Jupiter from being hunted; he swept her and her son Aras into the sky as the Great and Little Bear. The two bulls pulling the chariot are significant of Taurus, which is rising through the constellation of the Bear. The heads of the putti emerging from the clouds represent the winds. The wheels with eight spokes are associated with the successive conjunctions of Venus, and therefore the goddess. 

Primavera, Botticelli, 1482
The symbolism in Botticelli’s Primavera (Spring) is more esoteric in nature, and unusual because it reads right to left. The colors are significant; green, gold, and sapphire are associated with the Three Graces. Javier Sierra, in his book The Secret Supper, postulates that this painting commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici deals with occult themes, and represents the magical practice of drawing down planetary influences into images, transmitting only healthful, rejuvenating influences to the beholder, functioning as a complex talisman against the effects of Chronos. One could make a connection between the perception of the painting as a talisman and the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone. I believe by placing this work in context, the esoteric nature of the alchemical and mythological symbolism is due to the persecution of alchemists and their philosophy. The goddess with the branch in her mouth is a symbol of Alchemy, a philosophy suppressed by the Church. 

Many renowned artists of the time used this visual code in their now famous works to portray heretical or unpopular world-views. Other interesting “forbidden symbols” which represent enlightenment (a concept the Church frowned on) are three: golden arrows, red x’s, or flowers (as seen in Primavera). Nadia Coucha, in Surrealism and the Occult, argues that although modern symbolist painting is often considered artistically poor, the motives for such art must be considered. She states that symbolism set the stage for modern symbolist artists and contributed to the view that art should be about ideas, not only appearances.   

Symbolism is a visual language that has been used for millennia to express that which is seen in our minds, by our eyes, and concepts understood by the soul. Masters of fine art used image as symbol, bringing depth of meaning to their work that is all but lost. 

About Symbologist Michelle Snyder

Michelle earned her post-graduate degree at the University of Wales, decoding prehistoric images, mythology, folklore, and fairy tales and tracing them to their roots. She is an author, columnist, publisher, artist, and teacher. Her artwork, inspired by her love of symbolism and folklore, has appeared in galleries from Massachusetts to California. Michelle is co-owner of White Knight Studio.
     Books by Michelle, available at Amazon:


Symbology ReVision: Unlocking Secret Knowledge  
Symbology: Hidden in Plain Sight
Symbology: My Art and Symbols 
Symbology: Fairy Tales Uncovered 
Symbology: Decoding Classic Images 
Symbology: World of Symbols 
Symbology: Secrets of the Mermaids


A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book One - The Lost Unicorn


A Tale of Three Kingdoms: Book Two - The Lost Mermaid

The Fairy Tales: Once-Upon-A-Time Lessons First Book


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