If metaphor is the greatest of the verbal figurative expressions (tropes), but in painting appears comparatively rare, I move on now to consider the other great tropes of metonymy and synecdoche.
Metonymy and synecdoche in verbal rhetoric
An informal definition of ‘metonymy’ is that it is a figurative expression (trope) in which a phrase is substituted by one which is associated in meaning as an indirect reference to the original phrase. Verbally, examples include ‘Wall Street’ (or, in the UK, ‘the City’) meaning business, industry, the financial markets; ‘the White House’ meaning the President of the US (or, in the UK, ‘the Palace’ meaning the Queen as Head of State).
There are several interesting features of metonyny which are worth mentioning. Unlike a metaphor, in which both halves have to be given for the metaphor to work, in a metonym only the word(s) with the associated meaning are given. You do not write ‘Wall Street, which is to say the financial markets’. Metonymy requires your audience to recognise the reference and complete it: if you were to refer to Wall Street to someone who had no knowledge of the US, or the significance of Wall Street, then they would not understand the metonym.
So the success of a metonym depends on cueing prior knowledge in the audience. The audience also needs to recognise that you are using the metonym, and do not mean what you say literally. Consequently most successful metonyms are recognisably not literal, standing out as references to the metonymic association.
The metonymic pair also has contiguity in meaning. ‘Blues’ is not a metonym for depression, because the colour blue and concepts associated with it do not have any contiguity with ‘depression’: instead, the colour blue and term ‘blues’ are symbols.
An informal definition of ‘synecdoche’ is that it is a figurative expression (trope) in which an object or concept is represented by a part of it, or a part of an object or concept is represented by the whole. Verbally, examples include ‘bread and butter’ meaning livelihood, ‘The Book’ meaning ‘the Bible’.
There has been long debate as to whether synecdoche is a form of (or a subset of) metonymy, and it is really up to you whether you want to lump or split. I incline towards keeping them as separate, with the distinction being in the relationship between the two halves: in metonymy they are contiguous but separate, whilst in synecdoche they are in a part-whole relationship.
My remarks above about metonymy apply equally to synecdoche, in which only the figurative half of the trope is given explicitly, that the reference must be recognised by the audience, and that the audience must recognise the trope as being non-literal.
It is also worth bearing in mind an informal definition of symbol, as an object which represents a (dissimilar) object or concept, by way of a token or sign. Symbols cannot therefore be contiguous or in a part-whole relationship, but otherwise have similar properties to metonymy and synecdoche.
All three are very common in everyday writing and speech, and are deeply embedded in the English language as a technique of extending and refining the lexicon, and adding interest to the language. Cognitive linguists also see in metonymy, particular mental processes which they feel cast light on our linguistic processing, but that is a separate topic, perhaps even a red herring or garden path.
When looking for visual equivalents of any of these three tropes (although symbols were not accepted as tropes in classical rhetoric), the first property that is required is something that marks the trope apart from a literal interpretation. In the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, the lamb being sacrificed is placed in a prominent position, is an unusual object in the painting, and sticks out from its surroundings. Although often incorrectly referred to as a visual metaphor, by these definitions it must be a symbol, as it appears alone (unpaired with a representation of God), and is neither contiguous nor in a part-whole relationship with God.
As with metaphors, visual metonymy is common in advertising and graphic design. The trash can on your computer screen is a metonym, for instance, although many would loosely refer to it as a metaphor. But as we are shown only the figurative half, and it is conceptually contiguous to the concept of a folder where unwanted files are stored before being deleted, it meets the definition above for metonymy.
References to visual metonymy in painting
Having already identified one example of a visual symbol in a famous painting, it is not hard to spot many more in works of similar era and genre. Religious, mythological, and history paintings are often quite rich in such symbols, although very few would be deemed Symbolist in style. But several authors have claimed that important elements in certain paintings are metonymic, rather than symbolic.
Bal claims that, in Rembrandt’s two Lucretia paintings, Lucretia is a synecdoche for both herself and her rapist (p 70), although I find it hard to see any visual cue for that, and I am not sure that this ‘part for whole’ would work as synecdoche either. She later (p 73) claims that the bosom is metonymically related to the heart; that appears correct, but again there is no cue to indicate the synecdoche. The trope might have worked had Lucretia’s hands been clasped to her bosom, perhaps, but in both paintings they are cast away from her bosom.
The bell cord in the later painting is seen by Bal as “an appeal to the men – father and husband – called upon to avenge her”, or “as a curtain cord, it can indicate the opening of the curtain of the stage, Lucretia’s “publication,” her display.” (p 75.) Whilst the presence of the cord is unusual and could readily be a visual cue for a metonym, neither interpretation seems to be contiguous with the object shown, nor strongly associated with it. Further claims of metonymy and synecdoche are in a similar vein.
Gibson provides an interpretation of the ‘symbols’ seen in 50 major Renaissance paintings. For Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ (1450s), she offers:
- walnut tree – linked to a local legend, a symbolic reference
- dove – the Holy Spirit, a well-known symbol
- baptism by trickling of water rather than total immersion – this may be a metonym
- style of buildings – suggestive of Borgo San Sepolcro, thus probably literal
- Jesus – represented literally
- tree stumps – allusion to a metaphor in John’s speech, thus possibly metonymic
- John – represented literally
- witnesses – may be angels, or represent the Holy Trinity, thus could be symbolic
- golden rays above dove – may represent God the Father, symbolic
- undressing man – literal
- figures leaving the scene – represent Pharisees and Saducees, and thus literal.
Thus of the 11 possible tropes, four are probably symbols, two possibly metonymic, and five probably literal in nature.
For the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece (1432), she offers:
- dove – the Holy Ghost, a well-known symbol
- palm tree – a well-known symbol for the victory of martyrs over death
- popes, cardinals, etc. – make up the group of confessors of the faith and contemplatives, could be synecdochial
- angels around the lamb – bear symbols of the crucifixion
- landscape – represents the Kingdom of Heaven, heavenly Jerusalem, or the City of God, therefore symbolic
- white lily – a symbol of innocence and purity
- group of females – symbols identify them as virgin martyrs, thus literal
- lamb – symbols of the halo and golden glow identify this as the Lamb of God, or Christ, thus symbolic
- angels swinging censers – symbols of prayers offered to God
- all saints – righteous persons, thus synecdochial
- altar – a place of sacrifice, with symbols of martyrdom and sacrifice
- rocks held by saint – symbols of St Stephen
- fountain – symbolic links to baptismal font, but is the fountain of the water of life, hence symbolic
- books – literally for the Bible
- 12 men at head – the 12 apostles, literal.
Of its 15 possible tropes, 10 appear to be symbols, two are likely to be synecdoche, and three probably literal in nature.
Sandro Botticelli’s Spring (Primavera, c 1478) is richly laden with symbols, as detailed by Gibson, but no element appears to be metonymic or synecdochial in nature. One striking feature of most of the paintings considered by Gibson is that they appear strange and not intended to be taken literally. Many have idiosyncratic collections of unusual objects which are strong cues to the viewer that all is not literal there.
Friedman claims that Cézanne’s ‘Philadelphia’ Large Bathers (1906) contains deep and extensive metonymy. She argues that bodies of bathers are trees, and the trees are people, also that the foliage is sky. The bather in the centre in the water is alleged to be a highlight of the water. The water is interpreted as the “altar of the temple of nature”, although this is termed a metaphor. The trees additionally form the steeple of a church (p 317). In each case these tropes fail the test for metonymy or synecdoche as detailed above, and at best would appear to be symbols, as is usually the case.
In Susan Ryland’s thesis, the sole conventional paintings which are cited as examples of metonymy are Ferdinand Hodler’s The Night (1889-90), about which she writes:
“In The Night (…), the outer figures, sleeping alone or with a partner, rest peacefully, partially draped in black covers. But the central figure of a man, possibly the artist, is depicted awake, with a horrified expression, as he recoils from a nightmarish black fabric form of death rising from his loins. We ‘read’ the painting through a play of lights and darks that form a visual vortex. The inner figure is terror-stricken by the all-consuming darkness at the centre of the composition, and metaphorically at the centre of the artist’s life: the artist’s parents and five of his siblings died from tuberculosis.” (p 64.)
Similarly for his The Frustrated Souls (1892), she writes:
“In The Frustrated Souls, five male figures are set in a row on a long bench, each bowed in apparent despair and introspection. The figures seem almost entombed in the landscape, buried in their misery. The painting is read as if it is a scale of grief, from the centre to the outer figures and back again, comparing one figure with another. The heads of the outermost figures are bent; those on either side of the central figure hold their heads in their hands, while the central figure and focal point is half-naked, ghostly-pale, emaciated, and deeply bowed in hopeless grief. The figures seem to be clothed as monks, and the central figure is reminiscent of Christ on the cross.” (p 65.)
Ferdinand Hodler’s work is of particular interest here, as most of his paintings were apparently literal landscapes and portraits. However at times he painted motifs which were clearly not literal, and rich in symbols. He was also generally accepted as being a Symbolist, and the two paintings cited by Ryland would appear to be among his more Symbolist works. Unfortunately Ryland does not consider the far more probable interpretation that the black cloaked object in The Night is a symbol of death, as black cloaked figures are not likely to stand in a contiguous or part-whole relationship with respect to the concept of death.
Conclusions on metonymy in painting
According to my fairly exclusive requirements for metonymy and synecdoche, there do appear to be some examples in representative paintings prior to the ‘modern art’ of the twentieth century. However in general symbols are used much more frequently than either metonymy or synecdoche, and most works which use any of these tropes make their non-literal nature abundantly clear to the viewer. But then if they did not, we would probably not spot the non-literal elements in the painting, in any case.
Bal M (1991/2006) Reading Rembrandt. Beyond the Word-Image Opposition, Cambridge UP and Amsterdam Academic Archive. ISBN 90 5356 858 1.
Chandler D (2007) Semiotics. The Basics, 2nd edn, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 36375 4.
Friedman J (2007) Cézanne and the poetics of metonymy, Word & Image 23(3): 312-321.
Lanham RA (1991) A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd edn, U of California Press. ISBN 978 0 520 27368 9.
Ryland S (2011) Resisting metaphors. A metonymic approach to the study of creativity and cognition in art analysis and practice. PhD thesis, Univeristy of Brighton. (via website.)
The Metaphor and Art blog.
Susan Ryland’s site.
Useful collections of symbols in paintings include:
Battistini M (2002/5) Symbols and Allegories in Art, A Guide to Imagery, J Paul Getty Museum. ISBN 978 0 89236 818 1.
Gibson C (2007) The Hidden Life of Renaissance Art. Secrets and Symbols in Great Masterpieces, Saraband. ISBN 978 1 887354 59 2.
Hall J (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 2nd edn, Westview Press. ISBN 978 0 8133 4393 8.
Ronnberg A ed (2010) The Book of Symbols. Reflections on Archetypal Images, Taschen. ISBN 978 3 8365 1448 4.
de Rynck P (2009) Understanding Paintings. Bible Stories and Classical Myths in Art, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 28789 7.