What's In a Symbol?


Beginning as far back as prehistoric cave paintings, artists have used symbolism to stand for ideas of their every day lives that link to other, deeper concepts. By implementing certain images into their artworks, artists were able to allude to religious ideas, historical periods, mythology, death and mortality, and others as exemplified in this exhibition. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the viewers, patrons, and location often influenced what the images were in each composition. In the selected artworks of this exhibition, the binding thread is the imagery, though not necessarily merely based upon the content. The actual ideas behind the works are the main focus because of the usage of symbolism to create another level of dimension to each piece. In some works artists wanted to warn the viewer and other times it was the patron who wanted to project something in particular to those viewing the piece, like wealth, piety, or success. Influences from the classical period and Christianity are the prevailing ideas of this particular selection, though there are other influences as well. Usually, the difference in symbolism is due to the areas in which the art originates, such as Flanders or Italy. Stylistically speaking, the influences of the geography and time periods also have a large effect on the compositions of the pieces selected. For example, in the North there was a considerable focus on the religious symbolism as in the Merode Altarpiece as opposed to the mythological references in the Birth of Venus that was painted in Italy. From the Early and High Renaissance in Northern Europe to the Early and Venetian Renaissance in Italy, symbolism made its mark as a prominent feature of art in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Image #1: Merode Altarpiece, Robert Campin

Nowhere is the usage of symbolism more prevalent than in the Early Renaissance in Northern Europe. In the North, religion played a huge role in the art. One of the characteristics of art from Flanders at this time was the utilization of symbols that referred to Christian ideas. There are three panels in the altarpiece, each part of the same scene. On the left, the patrons of the work were painted, symbolizing the importance of using art as a way to salvation. The right panel shows Joseph making mousetraps; it was a known fact at the time that the mousetraps represented how Christ was the bait for the Devil. The central panel is a scene of the Virgin as the angel Gabriel announces that she is to have the child of God. In this panel, the single lit candle, flowers on the table, church pews, and many other images reflect the symbolic intent of the artist, the Master of Flemalle.

Image #2: Adam and Eve, Albrecht Durer

The High Renaissance in Northern Europe also shows the emphasis on religion that was essential to the culture of the time. Albrecht Durer studied art in Italy and multiple places in the Holy Roman Empire and was influenced by what he saw on his travels. In this engraving, Durer made reference to the Adam and Eve story told in the Bible as well as the four “humors.” The bodies of the figures are based on the proportions Vitruvius thought to be perfect. The animals represent the humors of the body that the people of the time believed were the controlling factors of their health, like the choleric cat or the sanguine rabbir. This blend of culture and style made Durer into an international celebrity and his symbolic representations certainly added to the depth of his works. Viewers and buyers of the prints would have known about the humors and would have recognized the scene of the Fall of Man as a symbol of religion.

Image #3: The French Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger

The North, even in the middle of the sixteenth century, was very focused on producing art that had additional symbols that added depth to each piece. A great example of this can be found in Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of two French men of higher status. In contrast to Italy, the High Renaissance in the North was still very concentrated on the application of religious symbols in their paintings. On the table between the men, the upper shelf represents the celestial realm while the lower shelf represents the terrestrial world. In the upper left hand corner there is even an image of the crucifixion. One of the most interesting parts of this piece is the anamorphic skull that cuts diagonally across the composition on the bottom. In addition to the symbols that depicted the struggle between religious and secular ideals, the skull represents the aspect of death.

Image #4: The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli

In Florence, Italy, the Renaissance took a different route, recalling the classical period of Greece. In this revival of the female ****, Botticelli brought back some of the characteristics of the statues of ancient Greece. Only a little later than the Merode Altarpiece, this composition has virtually no religious symbolism. Venus is in the center of the piece with mythological winds and nymphs flanking her on either side. During this time, there was a revival of the philosophy of such thinkers as Plato, as seen in Neo-Platonic thought. This artwork reflects this shift in the minds of the southern Europeans; expression went from serious, religious art to commissioned, more pagan art. In Florence, the Medici family ruled and commissioned several artworks similar to this one from Botticelli. Humanism was a way in which people like the Medici justified using pagan symbols in the art to depict beauty, as seen in this piece.

Image #5: Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian

Once again, the influence of the classical period is evident in this piece. Though this is from Venice instead of Florence, there are clearly similarities between this artwork and Botticelli’s. There are mythological references to the stories the Greeks once told as truth. The sensuality of the piece is one of the main components that relates to the symbolism of the work as a whole. The lust and love, brute strength and beauty, and human and god interactions prove that the scene was far more than a simple recalling of the classics. This painting was actually done for Alfonso d’Este who put this painting in what he called the “pleasure chamber.” At this time, humanism and Neo-Platonism were main components of society. This piece, like Botticelli’s, was allowed in Catholic Rome because of the focus on beauty and love as opposed to the pagan mythology.

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