Mythical Meaning in Art


As you read this chapter, focus on the "Symbolism, Iconography, and Visual Literacy" and "Symbolism and Iconography in Mythology and Storytelling" sections to learn more about the role myths play in art. Why do you think artists who live in much later periods find the myths of antiquity so appealing?

Socio-Cultural Contexts

The process we go through when we look at a work of art to determine if we recognize and can make sense of its content is a visual one. It is also a mental process based on the elements within and about the work we can identify and categorize. As we look and think, we may observe clues about what the artwork means. Where is it located? When was it made? What culture did it come from? Who created it? Why was it made? Any information we can gather helps us understand the work's context or the historical, social, personal, political, or scientific reasons it was made. Using all of the contextual information we gather, we interpret the work of art's content to discover what it means or symbolizes.

Historical Context

Learning about the historical context helps us interpret the content and understand the meaning of two 17th-century Dutch paintings. Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680, Netherlands) created Still Life with a Gilt Cup in 1635 and Jan Davidsz. de Heem painted Still Life with Flowers around 1660. (Figures 5.1 and 5.2) Heda lived in his native Haarlem his entire life; de Heem was born in Utrecht but traveled in the Netherlands and then lived in Antwerp for most of his career, c. 1635 to 1667. He briefly returned to Utrecht but settled back in Antwerp in the 1670s, where he remained until his death.

Figure 5.1 | Still Life with Gilt Goblet

Figure 5.1 | Still Life with Gilt Goblet Artist: Willem Claeszoon Heda

Figure 5.2 | Vase of Flowers

Figure 5.2 | Vase of Flowers Artist: Jan Davidszoon de Heem

Each of these paintings is a still life, an arrangement of objects made by humans and found in nature, such as flowers, fruit, insects, sea creatures, and animals from the hunt. A still life falls into a subject category known as genre subjects or scenes of everyday life. Both Heda and de Heem specialized in painting still lifes that were beautifully arranged and stunningly lifelike. Each was well known for his ability to depict a variety of textures and surfaces, often displayed side-by-side, as we see here, to create a dazzling and sumptuous visual array.

Several things were going on in the Netherlands in the 1600s – known as the Dutch Golden Age – that can help explain why Heda and de Heem included certain objects in their paintings. What is today the Netherlands (Holland) and Belgium were ruled first by the Dukes of Burgundy, the Burgundians, beginning in 1433 and then by Charles V of the Habsburg family in 1506. Charles V left the Netherlands in 1515 to become King of Spain. Tensions among the family members who remained in place to rule led to friction with the Dutch and to revolt in 1566. At the same time, the Protestant Reformation that originated in Wittenberg, Germany, under Martin Luther in 1517 had spread through much of northern Europe, including parts of the Netherlands.

The Protestants the Catholic Spanish rulers first tolerated were soon treated as heretics, and their faith was seen as a rebellion to be crushed. William I, Prince of Orange, a Dutch nobleman, led his country into the Dutch War for Independence from Spain, also known as the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). In 1581, the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands were declared independent, forming what we know as Holland today. The southern area that remained under Catholic Spanish rule was known as Flanders and is modern Belgium. Fighting continued between the Dutch and Spanish until 1618, when they became embroiled in the European Thirty Years War (1618-1648). With the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Spanish crown officially acknowledged the republic of Holland.

During this political and religious turmoil and decades of disruption and destruction, the Netherlands experienced tremendous economic growth, revolutionary scientific exploration, dominance in worldwide trade, and the flourishing of the arts. The rising merchant class led to the spread of education and wealth among new segments of society. Their knowledge of and appreciation for art and their discretionary income led to increased patronage. These art patrons did not purchase sculptures and paintings for their churches (Protestants do not embellish their houses of worship), and they did not adorn the word of God as in the Bible. They found new subjects to paint, such as genre and still-life painting, in addition to landscapes, city views, portraits, and religious subjects in works meant to hang the home.

The subject of Heda's painting, Still Life with a Gilt Cup, appears to be the remains of a meal of oysters and bread, but it is even more about all the objects accompanying the food. (Figure 5.1) The tin plates and open-lidded pewter pitcher are simply fashioned and could have been made by local craftsmen. However, the remaining items are all luxury goods – a spiral ribbed clear glass cruet for oil or vinegar behind the tin bowl of oysters, the green glass wine römer, or goblet, decorated with prunts (applied blobs of molten glass, here drawn into points), and the tall, heavily ornamented, and gilded vessel topped by a lid with a figure of a warrior. They indicate wealth and good taste, and they allude to Holland's importance as a nation of traders who import beautiful objects from around the world.

We are not meant to look at this feast for the eyes and simply congratulate ourselves on our success and prosperity, though. The fact is the feast is over, and all we have here are the remains of what has too quickly passed. The richly decorated silver berkemeier, a wide-mouthed drinking vessel with a slender stem, is overturned. The oysters are a delicacy that only briefly retain their freshness and appeal, and the lemon, while beautiful, is actually bitter and will soon dry out. These are reminders that life is fleeting. No matter what material riches and comforts one accumulates on earth, it is more important to prepare one's soul for everlasting life.

In a similar fashion, Still Life with Flowers de Heem presents the beauty and bounty of nature. (Figure 5.2) He also shows the swift passing of the seasons by depicting flowers, fruits, and vegetables that bloom and ripen throughout the year. The tulips – from highly-prized and costly bulbs imported by the Dutch from the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey) – honeysuckle, roses, carnations, peas, grapes, and corn – introduced to Europe from the Americas – are among the profusion of colors and forms that de Heem unrealistically depicts as in season at the same time. Viewers would know that the blood-red striped tulip would have withered in the spring, long before the orange carnation blossomed in the fall. De Heem reminds us of our own mortality and the transience of life in the face of certain death in this vanitas (Latin: vanity) still life.

The messages of these paintings reflect the importance of the Protestant faith, as practiced in Holland at the time, of the believer's direct connection to God without the need for intercessors. The faithful do not need the word of God to be interpreted for them, and the messages of God are everywhere. Both paintings celebrate life's riches and pleasures and remind us of its brevity and the unimportance of earthly possessions and human achievements in the face of eternity. While the works demonstrate the Dutch viewers' pride in themselves and their young nation's accomplishments in the face of tremendous obstacles, they also carry a word of caution and a reminder to be vigilant.

Social Context

Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902, USA) painted Conversation Piece around 1851-1852. (Figure 5.3) A genre painting, it depicts an everyday scene of a mother holding her infant in her lap while the father stands beside them, playfully dangling some cherries above the baby's eager grasp. It is a quiet scene of family life, a moment of contentment and peace, with the dining table not yet cleared after a meal adding an even greater sense of intimacy and informality. Spencer was the only prominent female painter at that time in the United States, and the majority of her works are narrative genre pieces such as this one. They are scenes of domestic life, often suggesting a story told through the setting, the arrangement and gesture of the figures, and their facial expressions.

Figure 5.3 | Conversation Piece

Figure 5.3 | Conversation Piece Artist: Lilly Martin Spencer

Elements in Spencer's work reflect her personal life. She depicted herself and her husband in Conversation Piece and many paintings. It was unusual for a woman to be a successful professional painter. Her husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer, took on the household duties and helped his wife pursue her career. Spencer remained the breadwinner of the family throughout their long, happy marriage, while she bore 13 children and raised seven to adulthood.

By the mid-19th century, several changes in American industry and commerce had far-reaching effects on the roles of women, men, and children in the home and labor force. For example, new machinery and production methods in the textile industry generated a need for mill workers that fostered the growth and spread of urban centers. Meanwhile, those who owned and managed the mill factories and those who worked in them became part of a wage-based economy, and the demand for goods and services to support them rose accordingly.

In New England, most of the mill workers were young women who had been recruited from rural areas; the wages they earned were saved in anticipation of marriage or to supplement their family's income. Critics feared the economic and social independence the women gained would turn them against the hard and isolated farm lives they left behind, and indeed many chose not to return. However, the greatest apprehension was that these women would turn away from their "rightful" place in the home.

The growing industrialism of American society impacted men and their roles within and outside the home, as well. Men primarily worked outside the home in manufacturing, business, or commerce. Their roles sharply contrasted with the domestic duties and roles of wife and mother. This separation of obligations and expectations led to rigid gender roles that contained women and men. The roles confined the woman to the protective environment of home, while the man sheltered her as he faced the harsh demands outside.

In Spencer's painting, the woman represents the feminine ideal of a nurturing and content mother. But rather than showing a father who holds himself apart from the womanly, domestic sphere, as was far more common at the time, Spencer depicts the man in an equally caring and warm role. An oval is formed by the mother's bent head and arm, which extends from her hand supporting the baby's head through the baby's upraised arm to the father's bent arm, his bowed head, and his left arm resting on the back of the mother's chair. At odds with many at the time who believed men and women existed in separate spheres, Spencer draws the family into one circle.

American industrialism worked hand-in-hand with ingenuity. Beginning in 1811, the steamboat routes on the Mississippi River and its tributaries contributed to the growth of settlements and cities from New Orleans to Pittsburgh. The first steamboat to make that run was the New Orleans, designed by Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, both key figures in the development of steamboat design and travel. It was made of wood and propelled by a paddle wheel powered by a steam engine; the steam was made by heating water in boilers which had to be watched to avoid pressure building to the point of explosion. However, it was not uncommon for engineers to stoke the fires while keeping the boilers' safety valves closed to allow steam pressure to build past safe levels to decrease travel time between landings in races with other steamboats.

Figure 5.4 | The Champions of the Mississippi - "Race for the Buckhorns"

Figure 5.4 | The Champions of the Mississippi - "Race for the Buckhorns" Artist: Frances Flora Bond Palmer

Although 230 boats were destroyed due to boiler explosions between 1816 and 1848, with the loss of nearly 1,800 lives, one of the great attractions of steamboat travel remained its speed. The excitement and the danger of a steamboat race are captured in a print published by Currier & Ives in 1866, The Champions of the Mississippi: A Race for the Buckhorns. (Figure 5.4) Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888, USA) and his brother-in-law James Merritt Ives (1824-1895, USA) formed the company Currier & Ives in 1857. They published black-and-white and hand-colored lithographs on numerous subjects meant to appeal to a broad spectrum of the American public, including landscapes, genre scenes, portraits, depictions of politics and current events, and the latest innovations in science, industry, and the arts.

The firm of Currier & Ives hired well-known artists of the day to create the drawings from which their lithographic prints were made. The artist who drew the Champions of the Mississippi was Frances Flora Bond Palmer (1812-1876, USA). Palmer, like Lilly Martin Spencer, supported her family as a full-time artist. Palmer produced hundreds of original drawings in the seventeen years she worked for Currier & Ives, more than any other artist they employed. She also printed and hand-colored many of her own works, parts of the lithographic process generally reserved for artists in the firm with less training and expertise. For example, the prints were usually painted in an assembly line, with one artisan applying a single color and passing the work on to the next for another color. That Palmer took part in all phases of creating the prints indicated her great skill and versatility.

As in most scenes Palmer created, she did not witness the race between the steamboats Queen of the West and Morning Star or the cheering crowd on the shore. She depicted numerous scenes since these competitions were commonplace, and prints commemorating them were popular and sold well. The races and the steamboats were a source of pride and a celebration of American ingenuity, competitiveness, and success. Most people who owned prints like The Champions of the Mississippi had never seen the river or a steamboat competition. It represented the open possibilities of America's greatest waterway and indomitable spirit. As Mark Twain, who grew up in a town on the river's shore and spent four years as a riverboat pilot (1857-1861), described, there was a magical quality to the allure and excitement of life on the river, especially when a steamboat race was coming. He related in his memoir Life on the Mississippi (1883):

In the "flush times" of steamboating, a race between two notoriously fleet steamers was an event of vast importance. The date was set for it several weeks in advance, and from that time forward, the whole Mississippi Valley was in a state of consuming excitement. Politics and the weather were dropped, and people talked only of the coming race.

The chosen date being come, and all things in readiness, the two great steamers back into the stream, and lie there jockeying a moment, and apparently watching each other's slightest movement, like sentient creatures; flags drooping, the pent steam shrieking through safety-valves, the black smoke rolling and tumbling from the chimneys and darkening all the air. People, people everywhere; the shores, the house-tops, the steamboats, the ships, are packed with them, and you know that the borders of the broad Mississippi are going to be fringed with humanity thence northward twelve hundred miles, to welcome these racers.

Personal or Creative Narrative Context

Charles Demuth (1883-1935, USA) painted The Figure 5 in Gold in 1928. (Figure 5.5) Demuth met poet and physician William Carlos Williams at the boarding house where they both lived in Philadelphia while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Demuth's painting is one in a series of portraits of friends, paying homage to Williams and his 1916 poem:

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Figure 5.5 | I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

Figure 5.5 | I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold Artist: Charles Demuth

Williams described the inspiration for his poem as an encounter with a firetruck as it noisily sped along the streets of New York, abruptly shaking him from his inner thoughts to a jarring awareness of what was happening around him. Demuth chose to paint his portrait of Williams not as a likeness but with references to his friend, the poet. The dark, shadowed diagonal lines radiating from the center of his painting, punctuated by bright white circles, capture the jolt of the charging truck accompanied by the clamor of its bells. The accelerating beat of the figure five echoes the pounding of Williams's heart as he was startled. It was the sight of the number in gold that Williams was first aware of at the scene, and Demuth uses the pulsing five to symbolically portray his friend, surrounded by the rush of red as bright as blood with his name, Bill, above as if flashing in red neon.

For Demuth, that connection between his friend and his poetry told us more about who Williams was than his physical appearance. A traditional portrait would show us what Williams looked like, but Demuth wanted to share with the viewer the experience of the poem the artist closely identified with his friend so that we would have an inner, deeper understanding of the poet. Demuth gave us his personal interpretation of Williams through the story, the narrative, that he tells us with the aid of "The Great Figure."

Georgia O'Keeffe gives us a portrait of the American landscape similarly in her painting Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue from 1931. Throughout the 19th century and into the first decades of the twentieth century, the majority of artists depicted the American land through its mountains and forests, farmlands and prairies, rivers and waterfalls: the vast stretches, immense heights, bounty, variety, and majesty of the seemingly endless continent. In this painting, however, O'Keefe chose to portray the beauty of the United States not through its fertile grasslands or rocky peaks but in the austerity and simplicity of the desert of the American Southwest that she had come to appreciate, as symbolized by the sharp lines of a bleached cow's skull set against patriotic red and blue.

O'Keefe was born in 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. After studying art and working as an art teacher in several areas of the United States, including Chicago, Illinois, Amarillo, Texas, and Columbia, South Carolina, O'Keefe moved to New York City in 1918.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946, USA), a photographer, publisher, and art gallery owner who was instrumental in introducing audiences to and helping them appreciate European and American modernist art in this country in the first decades of the twentieth century, had exhibited O'Keefe's drawings in his gallery 291 in 1917. The following year she accepted his offer of support so that she could devote herself to painting full-time. After more than ten years in New York, depicting streets and buildings of the city and at the Stieglitz family home on Lake George in upstate New York,

O'Keefe decided to spend the summer of 1929 with friends in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. Painted after that trip, Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue shows the contrast between traditional and popular landscape views. She invites the viewer to contemplate how nature can be daunting and uninviting and to remember the flinty strength of the pioneers who moved across and settled in the demanding climate and terrain of the Southwest. The harshness of that life can be seen in the jagged lines of splintered bone in the skull, a reminder of inevitable death similar to a 17th-century Dutch vanitas piece such as de Heem's Vase of Flowers. But, the skull was also an object representing life to O'Keefe:

To me, they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me, they are strangely more living than the animals walking around…The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive in the desert even tho' it is vast and empty and untouchable and knows no kindness with all its beauty.

Political Context

As was the case with the painting Pear Blossoms by Qian Xuan (Figure 1.10), Bamboo and Rocks by Li Kan (1245-1320, China) was painted during the Yuan Dynasty when the Mongols ruled China. (Figure 5.6) There are similarities but also important differences between the works. Pear Blossoms was painted in 1280, shortly after the Mongols took power, and Bamboo and Rocks was painted nearly 40 years later in 1318. During that period, the Mongolian leaders made substantial changes in the government, thrusting out those in imperial power and scholar-officials, including painters. Those who had been at the top of the social and political hierarchy were now turned away from government positions and looked upon with distrust and distaste.

Figure 5.6 | Bamboo and Rocks

Figure 5.6 | Bamboo and Rocks Artist: Li Kan

Although the Mongols appreciated Chinese painting and artists were commissioned to make (or appointed to produce) works for those in power, many were unwilling to paint for foreign leaders. Kan's painting is interpreted as a reflection on China, its people, and its traditions under Mongolian rule. Bamboo and Rocks is a pair of scrolls painted with ink and color on silk meant to be hung side-by-side. Unlike Pear Blossoms, a scroll meant to be unrolled in approximately twelve-inch segments on a table, then rolled again to reveal the next segment, and finally stored away between viewings, Bamboo and Rocks would remain in view hanging on a wall. Both are ink paintings capturing the simplicity of beauty in nature. But the objects depicted also have symbolic meanings going back to ancient Chinese culture. Bamboo symbolizes virtue, grace, and resilience, while rocks symbolize strength and power to endure. In Kan's painting, their contrasting forms, low and curvilinear against upright and angular, balance each other. The artist indicates that during the Yuan Dynasty, under the rule of the Mongols, the Chinese people would be like bamboo; they would bow but not break in the uncertain climate of the rocky landscape of occupation.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828, Spain) was a court painter to King Charles IV from the beginning of his reign in 1789 until Napoleon ousted Charles from his throne in 1808 during the French invasion of Spain. Goya was hired the same year to make a visual record of the bravery of the Spanish people against the onslaught of the French invaders. The impact of what Goya saw, however, changed the direction and tone of the series of prints he made from the unflinching courage of his fellow citizens to despair over the barbarous atrocities committed and merciless suffering endured by all who are trampled in the path of war. He created the series of eighty-two etchings, The Disasters of War, between 1810 and 1823. Y no hai Remedio (And There's Nothing to Be Done) is the 19th print in the series; it reflects the hopelessness of war. (Figure 5.7) There is no escape, nor is there justice. Both civilians and soldiers become de­ humanized and numb in the endless slaughter, here in the form of a firing squad.

Figure 5.7 | Plate 15 from "The Disasters of War" (Los Desastres de Ia Guerra): And there is nothing to be done (Y no hai rem

Figure 5.7 | Plate 15 from "The Disasters of War" (Los Desastres de Ia Guerra): And there is nothing to be done (Y no hai remedio) Artist: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

The print series was not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya's death. There are theories why the artist was fearful of political repercussions, the scenes were too graphic, or the wounds were too painful for public release in the immediate decades after the war. The artist himself gave no explanation. By the time The Disasters of War series was printed, the French and Spanish governments that had participated in and ruled immediately after the Peninsular War (1808-1814), as it came to be known, had both been superseded. Goya's documentation of and cry against human self-destruction had no impact at the time of the disasters themselves, but they are still among the most powerful images of political protest ever made.

Scientific Context

Art and science are inextricably linked. The words technique and technology are derived from the ancient Greek word tekhne, which means art. For the Greeks, art and science were the study, analysis, and classification of objects and ideas. Through the study of math and art, they arrived at the golden ratio: when dividing a line into two parts, the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part. Expressed algebraically, that can be written as a/b = ab/a. The visual representation of the golden ratio, the Greeks determined, results in the most visually pleasing portions within and of an object or figure. (Figure 5.8)

Figure 5.8 I Fibonacci Spiral: The Golden Ratio

Figure 5.8 I Fibonacci Spiral: The Golden Ratio

Leonardo da Vinci was fascinated by how things work. The mechanics of nature, machinery, and the human body were all worlds to be explored deeply in order to be understood at their most essential, truthful levels. Although he was interested in human anatomy throughout his career, he spent the last twelve years of his life systematically studying and documenting his findings. He began in the winter of 1507-1508 with a series of pen-and-ink drawings that he made of a dissection he carried out on an old man. In the winter of 1510-1511, he completed additional dissections, probably working with anatomy professor Marcantonio della Torre at the University of Pavia. (Figure 5.9)

Figure 5.9 | Anatomical studies of muscles of the arm and shoulder, bones of the foot

Figure 5.9 | Anatomical studies of muscles of the arm and shoulder, bones of the foot Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo intended to include his more than 240 drawings in a treatise on anatomy, but following Marcantonio's death from the plague in 1512 and political upheaval in the city of Milan where Leonardo lived, his focus shifted, and he never completed and published his book. When he died in 1519, his drawings and notes on human anatomy, along with approximately 6,500 pages from his other notebooks, were dispersed and effectively lost to the world for 400 years. Leonardo's insights into such areas as the functioning of the heart and growth of a fetus, all completely accurate, had to be laboriously rediscovered by other artists and scientists in the succeeding centuries.

Questions that had long intrigued artists and scientists but could not be answered by observation with the naked eye, such as details about a planetary body in space, a specimen under the microscope, or an animal in motion, were finally being answered in the nineteenth century with the invention of photography. Leland Stanford, head of the Union Pacific Railroad, former governor of California, and racehorse owner, in 1872 accepted the challenge to prove whether all four feet of a horse left the ground when galloping. He hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904, England, lived USA) to conduct a study of the sequence of movement that is too rapid to be captured by the human eye. Muybridge experimented with setting up cameras along a track to photograph the horse and rider at evenly spaced intervals. He was soon able to prove that, indeed, all four hooves are in the air when the horse's legs are under its body-not when the legs are fully extended to the front and rear as many had thought. (Figure 5.10)

Figure 5.10 I The Horse in Motion

Figure 5.10 I The Horse in Motion Artist: Eadweard Muybridge

While the first set of photographs Muybridge took for Stanford was lost, the industrialist (who, with his wife, Jane would found Stanford University in 1885) encouraged the photographer to continue his studies. Muybridge published his findings on the galloping horse in Scientific American in 1878. In the aftermath, Muybridge spoke frequently throughout the United States. He was invited to continue his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where his work was valued for the information it would provide in the areas of technology, science, and art. He conducted his photographic experiments there from 1884 to 1887, and the following year he published his book Animal Locomotion, which contained 781 photographic plates of a wide variety of motion studies, including men, women, children, horses, lions, bison, ostriches, cranes, and cats.

Symbolism and Iconography

refers to using specific figural or naturalistic images or abstracted graphic signs that hold shared meaning within a group. A symbol is an image or sign that is understood by a group to stand for something. The symbol, however, does not have to have a direct connection to its meaning. For example, the letters of the alphabet, which are abstract graphic signs, are understood by those who use them to have individual sounds and meanings. The users have assigned meaning to them, as letters have no meaning in and of themselves. An example of a naturalistic image is a rose, which in most Western civilizations symbolizes love. When one person gives a rose to another, it is a symbol of the love the person feels.

Iconography is the broader study and interpretation of subject matter and pictorial themes in a work of art. This includes implied meanings and symbolism used to convey the group's shared experience and history-its familiar myths and stories. Iconography refers to the symbols used within a work of art and what they mean or symbolize. For example, in different cultures, a snake may stand for evil, temptation, wisdom, rebirth, or the circle of life. A depiction of a snake in a scene with Adam and Eve has specific meanings for those of the Christian faith or others who understand the snake stands for temptation within the context of that subject or story. In Chinese culture, however, a snake represents the power of nature and is said to bring good fortune to those who practice the snake's restraint and elegance of movement.

Changes in Meaning of Symbols and Iconography

While a symbol might have a common meaning for a certain group, and it might be used with variations by or hold a different significance for other groups. Let us use the example of a cross. At its core, a cross is a simple intersection of vertical and horizontal lines that could refer to the meeting of celestial and terrestrial elements or forces or could lend itself to other variations of meaning. The cross most frequently associated with Christianity is the Latin Cross, with the long vertical bar intersected by a shorter horizontal one believed by many to be the form of the cross upon which Jesus Christ, the central figure of the faith, was crucified. But its simplicity of conception lends itself to various other readings, as well, and in pre-Christian use, it was related to sacred and cosmic beliefs.

Within Christian usage, the cross has taken a great number of different forms, including the equal-armed Greek Cross, favored by the Byzantine Christians; Celtic crosses, with a circular addition to the crossing; X's and upside-down crosses associated with specific Christian martyrs, individuals who died for their faith, on such instruments of torture; and many others. In art, we might see them as simple flat graphic works decorated in two-dimensional renditions, or as fully developed three-dimensional interpretations, like the numerous grave markers in Irish cemeteries, where they are further embellished with intricate motifs and iconographic depictions of Bible stories. (Figure 5.11)

Figure 5.11 | Celtic Cross

Figure 5.11 | Celtic Cross

The Ankh, another cross form, with a looped handle, seems to have been devised by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of the life-giving power of the Sun. (Figure 5.12) It was one of the numerous pictographic symbols they used both as a separate sign and as part of the hieroglyphic system of writing they developed.

Figure 5.12 | Ankh

Figure 5.12 | Ankh

Clearly, many other symbols have various meanings, especially when they are represented as more abstract graphic signs. To read their implications in any particular application will require you to consider where it was made and for what specific purposes, as well as how it might have been adopted and turned to different use at that time or later. Sometimes the shifts in meaning may be radical, as in the form of the swastika, an ancient sacred sign used in many different cultures, including India and others throughout Asia, as well as the Near East and Europe. (Figures 5.13, 5.14, and 5.15) It has historically been a very auspicious sign with implications of good fortune and positive movement and was therefore adopted for the ground plan for Buddhist stupa worship centers. Of course, in the twentieth century, its appropriation by the Nazi Party as a symbol of the superiority of the Aryan heritage led to very different and now generally negative connotations.

Figure 5.13 | Hindu Swastika

Figure 5.14 I Tian Tan Buddha

Figure 5.14 I Tian Tan Buddha

Figure 5.15 I The Emblem of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP also known as the Nazi Party)

Figure 5.15 I The Emblem of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP also known as the Nazi Party)

Iconography is often more specific and definitive, with concrete reference to world experiences and, beyond that, to some form of narrative for the group involved. Again, analysis of the pictorial form requires an examination of the context in which the artwork was created. We can and must look at the underlying narrative, but, as we shall discuss in the next several chapters, the pictorial expressions evolve both independently of the narrative sources and in response to narrative and artistic change.

For example, Christians (more specifically, that branch now known as Roman Catholics) debated the "true nature" of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. Among the points of debate was whether Mary was bodily in Heaven with her Son or whether she had to wait until the end of time when the whole of mankind would experience bodily resurrection, that is, at the time of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, when everyone would have their lifetime of deeds assessed for purposes of learning whether they would spend eternity in Heaven or Hell. These Christian ideas are among a great amount of art that has been devoted over time.

To illustrate, we can look at the differences between the two works about Mary and her place and role in Heaven that appeared in church relief sculpture during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These differing ideas focused on the implied elevation of Mary to divine status or to her not being seen as divine herself, in which case, the faithful needed to keep a view of her as being in a more subordinate or secondary status. The questions included consideration of Mary as the "Queen of Heaven," who might be ruling alongside her son. At Senlis Cathedral (1153-1181) in France, she was depicted as apparently a co-ruler with Christ, but ensuing theological discussion took issue with this possible over-elevation. (Figure 5.16) So, while the renditions of Mary as the celestial queen continued in popularity, they made it clear that she was only considered to be there at the bidding and will of Christ. This can be seen at Chartres Cathedral in France, where she bows her head to Jesus.

Figure 5.16 | West Portal of Notre-Dame Cathedral

Figure 5.16 | West Portal of Notre-Dame Cathedral

What we see here, again, is that our full analysis of the artworks we encounter needs a complex approach that includes a variety of visual clues and a wide range of research on the contextual details of its creation and use. In contrast to the longstanding assertion that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," the appropriate interpretation according to the intended symbolism and/or iconography must take the society, culture, and related circumstances into account to accurately reflect its intended meaning or original meaning for viewers.

Symbolism, Iconography, and Visual Literacy

Symbols like the cross or the swastika will only have shared meaning for those who agree upon and affirm a specific interpretation, which can be positive or negative for any particular group of people. This specific meaning in symbols is always going to be the case for viewing any visual expression, whether in simplified graphic sign form or a more detailed pictorial rendition. Additionally, the viewers must often have some measure of instruction about how to view a particular work so they can understand its meaning more fully.

Also noteworthy is that members of any group use art as a means of sharing ideas and sentiments, as well as for expressing and teaching ideology. While the didactic uses of art have often been discussed in terms of instruction for the non-literate, we should recognize that the meanings of pictorial content and the tools used to create the picture must be learned as well. The apparent superficial meanings evident through visual examination do not produce the level of comprehension available in a more fully developed illustration of a tenet of faith, political message, history lesson, or chart or graph of economic trends. So "visual literacy" should be considered a skill related to verbal and reading literacy for any didactic function. Only members of a group who have been led to understand and perceive the underlying principles will know how to "read" an illustrated message.

For example, we can look at the Ritual Vase from Warka (today, Iraq) or the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden (Figure 5.17). One could likely identify the basic pictorial content of either work, but further knowledge would be needed to analyze them further. If you were a member of the intended audience, you might have more insight into what each artist had created in pictorial terms, but even the initiated viewer would likely have a limited "reading" of the work.

Figure 5.17 I Seven Sacraments Altarpiece

Figure 5.17 I Seven Sacraments Altarpiece Artist: Rogier van der Weyden

In the case of the Ritual Vase from Warka, even if you had lived in ancient Sumer and had been a devotee of the goddess Inanna, you would likely need further instruction about how the carvings on the different registers of the vase were arranged to show the cosmological conception of the created world. That is, one starts at the bottom with the primordial earth and waters, moves to the plants and animals above them, drawing sustenance so that they could be harvested and herded by the humans, who then offer part of their gleanings to the goddess serving them from the temple as seen in the upper realm of the middle photograph. This design would be further explained as a neatly hierarchical arrangement in which the levels of the created world were presented in different sizes, according to their relative importance. Additional meanings could be layered upon this cursory explanation with repeated teaching occasions and viewings.

The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece was painted by Rogier van der Weyden in a region and an era of tremendously complicated iconography: Flanders during the Late Gothic/Northern Renaissance period. The presentation here includes a detailed pictorial description of each of the seven sacraments that marked the stages and stations of the Christian life. This symbolism again developed over time and often in response to theological writings that informed the artist and the viewer about specific meanings. The written sources are detailed and complex, with the pictorial rendition reflecting what the well-instructed Christian would know about these important rituals and their effects.

The larger central panel of the triptych, or three-part, the format was used by the artist to emphasize the Crucifixion as the dominant, overarching event that is related to each of the sacraments. Additionally, he provided angels with scrolls to identify them as if speaking to the viewer.

So, here the messages are both pictorial and inscribed, and the iconography is a complex program that relates all these ritual events to the whole Christian life and faith. Truly, the viewer must be an initiate to discern the meanings behind all the symbolism or a scholar to discover them. Nonetheless, even the casual or uninitiated can read much of what is present in the painting and can identify both familiar elements and those that might lead you to further investigation. This is often the task and the path in interpretation of iconography in art.

Symbolism and Iconography in Mythology and Storytelling

From early on, art contained expressions of mythical accounts that people shared about their beliefs and ways of living. From the time of the first great civilizations, for example, in Egypt, the Near East, China, Japan, and India, artwork related to the stories of the people. The degree to which any contemporary written sources confirm these interpretations varies, but that these myths had commonly understood meanings for the people for whom they were made is confirmed by both their frequent appearance and their apparent places in their culture's artistic traditions, sometimes over centuries. Artistic iconographic traditions, therefore, show strong relationships to beliefs and practices known from written sources-although written documentation sometimes does not appear until later times.

Figure 5.18 I Belt Buckle from Sutton Hoo ship burial

Figure 5.18 I Belt Buckle from Sutton Hoo ship burial

Because early stories were often passed along through oral tales, we do not always have a literary record of them until later times, even after the ideas had been expressed symbolically in pictorial art. An example of this symbolism may be found in the rich hoard (a collection of objects) known as the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, found in England and from the early Middle Ages era known as the Migration period (300-700 CE). Although the wooden ship itself has disintegrated, the burial hoard it contained provides details that confirm and broaden our incomplete understating of the adventurous societies of that time and their beliefs about needs for the afterlife. The diverse objects also lend certain insights into the epic tales of such warrior kings as Beowulf, whose story seems to have been a long-standing oral tradition, one perhaps re-told for centuries before being committed to written form. The lavish ornaments, such as this belt buckle and purse cover, give visual testimony to the tales of dragons and heroes like Beowulf through their expressive and intricate patterns and rich materials. (Figures 5.18 and 5.19) The fine metalwork on the purse cover is cloisonne, which is created by affixing gold or metal strips to the back surface, making compartments, that are filled with powder (in this case, ground garnets) and heated to 1,400-1,600 degrees F.

Figure 5.19 | Purse Lid from Sutton Hoo ship burial

Figure 5.19 | Purse Lid from Sutton Hoo ship burial

Figure 5.20 | Terracotta Amphora (jar)

Figure 5.20 | Terracotta Amphora (jar) Artist: Andokides

Figure 5.21 | The Column of Trajan

Figure 5.21 | The Column of Trajan Artist: Apollodorus of Damascus

The art of ancient Greece often showed great concern with the stories of Greek mythology as well. Tales of the gods and warriors abound, including those about the great physical or intellectual contest, such as the well-known struggles of Herakles (known as Hercules under the Romans), one of which is seen on this amphora. (Figure 5.20) Such tales were very familiar, and viewers were expected to supply the details of the rest of the story through the parts shown. However, the skillful artist can enliven the presentation of the figures with posture, gesture, expression, and such symbolic props as the club and the tripod Herakles holds.

As with literary accounts, the artworks associated with historical and legendary events often include a wide range of symbols and imagery to help convey ideas. These range from mundane details to grand historical moments, as in the Column of Trajan, nearly 100 feet in height, which commemorates the military campaigns of Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) against the Dacians (101-102 and 105-106 CE) in 155 scenes. (Figure 5.21) Or as appear in the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth 230 feet in length that pictorially recounts the events of the Norman Invasion and Battle of Hastings in 1066. (Figure 5.22)

Each of these works shows decisive points in their respective historical events in army operations and the details of the hard work involved in preparing for battle. (Figures 5.23 and 5.24) In this way, they provide us with glimpses of everyday life in the respective eras alongside specific details about the particular campaigns, the cultures in which they were significant, and the individuals who were key players in the historical events. The details of arms and armor, organized troops and chaotic fighting, the building of defensive structures and devices, moments of victory and defeat, and innumerable other items and activities-all are individually and collectively efficient means of recounting the evolution of the events which, in each of these works, is dramatically developed across a long scrolled compositional field that further emphasizes the lengthy narrative each one progressively disclosed.

Figure 5.22 | Section of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings

Figure 5.22 | Section of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings

Figure 5.23 | Detail of Plate XLVI, The Column of Trajan

Figure 5.23 | Detail of Plate XLVI, The Column of Trajan Artist: Apollodorus of Damascus

Figure 5.24 | Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Odo, half brother of William the Great, in battle

Figure 5.24 | Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Odo, half-brother of William the Great, in battle

Like many works of public art of the Roman Imperial era, the column glorifies not only Trajan (the base of the column was designed to contain his ashes) and his deeds but also the ideas of imperial rule, the role of conquest in expanding the Empire, and the skilled work of Roman soldiers in battlements and tactics. By contrast, the Bayeux Tapestry has more emphasis on the actual tumultuous battle scenes-replete with mounted cavalry in chain mail and elaborate helmets-but it also includes a great deal more sense of historical context: events leading up to the 1066 Battle of Hastings after the death of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066) and his burial in the newly refurbished Westminster Abbey he had adopted as his royal church. Both of these works also include inscriptions that explicate ideas and events, as well as serve to further present the political messages about the battles – presented on the tapestry in a sort of scene-by-scene narrative – again, for each, underscoring the relationships between literary and pictorial presentations of ideas.

Exploring Symbolic and Iconographic Motifs

Items, such as arms and armor, are obvious sorts of symbols that clearly depict their purposes, but much symbolism that we see in other artworks has more veiled and variable meaning. Such simple items as flowers and candles can be used in very complex ways in pictures that carry diverse meanings, thus requiring careful study and even deep research in order to discern their implications in a particular work.

For example, the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c. 1375-1444, Belgium) depicts the Christian story of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel that she will become the Mother of Christ, the son of God. (Figure 5.25) This work contains symbols that have been widely studied to discern and interpret their messages. The lilies are generally interpreted to symbolize the purity and virginity of Mary – in other pictures, though, they might have other meanings, including reference to death, resurrection, birth, motherhood, or other events or conditions. Within this one work, the use of the candle, just extinguished with a trail of smoke, is given several different meanings by diverse viewers and scholars. It might show the moment of acquiescence, when Mary agrees to bear the Christ child, in which God takes human form. It has also been read as a foreshadowing of Christ's death, of human death in general, and of the fleeting nature of life for all.

In the time and place of the altarpiece's creation, symbolism in paintings was particularly apt to be rich and varied, offering the viewer/believer a lot to see and to contemplate further. In this way, if the symbols could be read in different ways, they could then provide an ongoing stimulus for meditative reflection on the diverse levels of meaning.

Figure 5.25 | Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)

Figure 5.25 | Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) Artist: Robert Campin

And some symbolic motifs, distinguishing features or ideas, carry a different meaning in one context from what they might in another. Most symbols are not universal, although they often bear related meanings in diverse contexts. For instance, the sort of figure you might identify as an angel, that is, a winged creature with a human-like bodily form has appeared in the art of many different cultures. They generally represent beings that can travel between the terrestrial and celestial realms, but their more specific roles can vary widely for good or evil purposes. The Angel Gabriel, just seen in the Merode Altarpiece, was a messenger from God, according to the Christian tradition. This motif was built upon the Jewish tradition of angels sent from God to bring news or instructions or intervene as needed. Islamic interpretations, also building on the same traditions, are similar-although the figural representation is less common in Muslim artwork.

Prior to such figures, winged creatures known as Nikes were depicted by ancient Greek and Roman artists to show a moment of victory, sometimes, as is the case here, further symbolized by the award of a fillet, a band wrapped around the head, or laurel wreath. (Figure 5.26) These winged figures were sometimes gods or goddesses. The genie figures adorned palace walls in the ancient Near East, including horses, bulls, lions, and other animals were also winged to show their superior and sometimes god-like powers or origins. (Figure 5.27) Other examples include the goddess Isis of ancient Egypt and the Persian god Ahura Mazda. (Figures 5.28 and 5.29)

Figure 5.26 | Terracotta Bobbin

Figure 5.26 | Terracotta Bobbin Artist: Attributed to the Penthesilea Painter

Figure 5.27 | Lamassu

Figure 5.27 | Lamassu

Figure 5.28 | The Egyptian Goddess Isis

Figure 5.28 | The Egyptian Goddess Isis

Figure 5.29 | The Egyptian Goddess Isis

Figure 5.29 | The Egyptian Goddess Isis

Another set of prominent Christian iconographic motifs is the winged symbols which often represent the Four Evangelists in art: Matthew is the winged man or angel; Mark the winged lion; Luke the winged ox; and John the eagle. (Figure 5.30) At the same time, they refer to four key events in the life of Christ: the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Interpretations of these evangelist symbols are rooted in the Old Testament Vision of Ezekiel and the New Testament Book of Revelation, as related by the writings of St. Jerome in the fifth century CE. They accrued additional iconographic details over the centuries, with implications of their status as the special creatures who surround the celestial throne of God again, signifying that the wings facilitate movement between the realms traditionally ascribed to a deity, a god or goddess, and divinely related creatures. This use of wings clearly reflects human contemplation of the abilities that birds have to defy gravity and to artistically express the lofty aspirations of the earthbound.

Figure 5.30 | The Four Evangelists

Figure 5.30 | The Four Evangelists

Another frequently used iconographic motif that appears across the ages and across cultures is the halo, usually a circular area of light appearing behind the head of a person or creature. One example is the halo that appears behind the heads of Christ and the symbolic winged creatures in Figure 5.30. Note that Christ's halo has a cross form embedded in it, and his entire body is surrounded by a circle of light (made up of four arcs) known as an aureole or mandorla. Such devices, in many related forms, indicate a radiance that surrounds certain figures, showing their sanctity, divinity, or divine favor. It indicates their aura of holiness, with implications of their being infused with warmth, inflamed with divinity or with divine love. In some Asian versions, notably Hindu or Buddhist, the radiance is literally comprised of flames.

Frequently seen, as well, are such items as crowns, thrones, regalia like scepters, garments like official capes, monks' robes, or uniforms of all varieties-indications of a person's belonging to a specific group, class, or office that lead the viewer to identify some specific aspect of who the person might be and what role they have in the depiction. The positioning of figures relative to one another should also be read in order to discern meaning, interactions, relative rank, and other implications. The types of garb, accompanying items, and positioning often relate the message to a specific time and place by giving historical and cultural context through details of style or motifs used.

For example, on the stele depicting his victory over the Lullubi, the Akkadian ruler Naram Sin (r. c. 2254-2218 BCE) wears a horned helmet and is much bigger than the men around him. (Figure 5.31) He ascends the mountain as his enemies beg for mercy under the watch of astral deities, and that shows his relationship to them as the source of his power and right to rule. In the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441, Belgium), we can also see a variety of such motifs: Christ, wearing the papal tiara as a crown; Mary, richly dressed and humbly reading; and John the Baptist, in his garment of penitence, and preaching. (Figure 5.32) Adorned with jewels and gold on his clothing, the throne on which he sits, and the crown at his feet, Christ is here being shown as the king of Heaven as well as Earth.

Figure 5.31 | Victory Stele of Naram Sin

Figure 5.31 | Victory Stele of Naram Sin

Figure 5.32 | The Ghent Altarpiece

Figure 5.32 | The Ghent Altarpiece Artist: Jan van Eyck

Metaphorical Meanings

The metaphorical meanings of specific artworks also depend upon a certain level of viewer knowledge and insight. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing symbolically stands for another, perhaps unrelated, thing or idea.

In 1550 Chairs Stacked Between Two City Buildings by Doris Salcedo (b. 1958, Columbia), we see a metaphorical treatment of life change. (1550 Chairs Stacked Between Two City Buildings, Doris Salcedo) It is a view of displacement resulting from a 1985 uprising in her Colombian homeland that left many migrants displaced or dead, as well as similar catastrophic events in locales across the globe. The jumbled mass of furniture alludes to the upheaval of lives that are Overturned by mass violence and terrorism, often of those already without roots, community, or stable lifestyles. The victims, frequently anonymous and relatively invisible at the site of such a revolt, nonetheless left some hints of their presence in the chaotic remnants of their fleeting existence in a place where they had established so little sense of their individual identities. Her metaphorical expression gives a probing glimpse of the devastation such events have wrought around the world.

Before You Move On: Key Concepts

Another way to think about art is to consider the context of its creation and use. Any artwork will reflect the cultural moment when it appeared. This means the artist and/or patron made choices that reflect the physical place and cultural or subcultural group where they lived and worked and the shared ways of being, living, or thinking that define the group. The group's defining features might be national, regional, racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or related to gender, age, occupation, avocation, class, condition, or some other aspect(s) they have in common, by choice or by chance.

The artworks we encounter are filled with iconographic reference, symbols, and metaphorical allusions that give us clues to the broader and deeper meanings the artist or patron intend. They prompt us to investigate and contemplate those meanings. They can also prompt insights beyond the original meaning, especially when they are presented as a partial statement of a larger myth or narrative we know and understand or might discover through further research.

As we explore, it is important to distinguish between these types of readings to differentiate what we can learn about the original meaning and our own responses to what we see. This is true of all sorts of symbolism. We should avoid the temptation to ascribe a universal idea or meaning to a symbol or motif. This makes the discovery process and the viewing experience endlessly interesting.

Some works pointedly oppose prevailing issues in the culture. We will see these oppositions in detail when we look at two compartments filled with powdered material and melted at high temperatures.

deity: a divinity, a god or goddess.

genre: the subjects or scenes of everyday life.

golden ratio: a relationship of parts achieved when the longer part divided by the smaller part equals the whole length divided by the longer part; the golden ratio in art and architecture provides the most harmonious and visually pleasing proportions.

halo: usually a circular area of light appearing behind the head of a holy person or creature.

hierarchical arrangement: where the hierarchy or ranking of people or objects is represented by their different sizes, according to their relative importance.

hoard: a collection of objects.

iconography: the study and interpretation of subject matter and pictorial themes in a work of art.

mandorla: the almond-shaped enclosure which is sometimes depicted around Christ or the Virgin Mary (see aureole).

martyr: individual who died for their faith.

metaphor: a figure of speech in which one thing symbolically stands for another, perhaps unrelated, thing or idea.

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Source: Peggy Blood and Pamela J. Sachant,
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Last modified: Thursday, April 11, 2024, 6:03 PM