Symbols in painting before Symbolism 1400-1800

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae (detail) (1799), oil on canvas, 60.3 x 48.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

From the dawn of painting, humans have tried expressing in visual form abstractions which are not visual, using symbols. During the Middle Ages, many paintings were constructed more of symbols than realistic representations of objects and figures. With the development of increasing realism during the Renaissance, those symbols didn’t vanish. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, they came to form the basis of an art movement, Symbolism, which I’m going to be looking at more formally over the coming months.

This weekend, I look at some examples of the use of symbols in paintings between the Renaissance and around 1860. In this first of two articles, I consider this up to the start of the nineteenth century, from where I will continue in tomorrow’s article.

Unlike terms such as metaphor and simile which are drawn from the terminology of classical verbal rhetoric, symbols are more characteristic of visual arts. They roughly equate to the metonym, in representing something by a substitute which is associated in meaning as an indirect reference to the original.

A very common example is the representation of the Holy Spirit as a white dove, or tongues of flame; as the Holy Spirit is described as a spiritual abstraction, of itself it has no physical representation. These two symbolic forms are drawn from the New Testament, in the morning of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit manifested itself as tongues of fire, and during the baptism of Christ when the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove descending from heaven.

A symbol only works when the viewer knows that they are looking at a symbolic rather than a real object, and when the viewer makes the association between the symbol depicted and its intended meaning. Both of those are dependent on common culture, and often age badly.

Hubert van Eyck (c 1366–1426) and Jan van Eyck (c 1390–1441), Adoration of the Lamb, panel from the Ghent Altarpiece (c 1425-1432), oil on panel, 137.7 x 242.3 cm (panel), Saint Bavo Cathedral Sint-Baafskathedraal, Ghent, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Many of the great paintings of the Renaissance are rich in symbols, some of which now nay need explanation. For example, this well-known panel from the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece includes:

  • a dove – the Holy Spirit;
  • the palm tree – then a well-known symbol for the victory of martyrs over death;
  • angels around the lamb bear symbols of the crucifixion;
  • the landscape represents the Kingdom of Heaven, heavenly Jerusalem, or the City of God;
  • the white lily – a lasting symbol of innocence and purity;
  • group of females – symbols identify them as virgin martyrs;
  • the lamb – symbols of the halo and golden glow identify this as the Lamb of God, or Christ;
  • angels swinging censers – symbols of prayers offered to God;
  • the altar – a place of sacrifice, with symbols of martyrdom and sacrifice;
  • rocks held by a saint – symbols of St Stephen;
  • the fountain – symbolic links to a baptismal font, but here is the fountain of the water of life.
Piero della Francesca (c 1415/20-1492), The Baptism of Christ (after 1437), egg on poplar, 167 x 116 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1861), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

Symbols readily identifiable in Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ (after 1437) include:

  • walnut tree – linked to a local legend, culturally obscure;
  • a dove – the Holy Spirit;
  • tree stumps – an allusion to a metaphor in John’s speech;
  • witnesses – these may be angels, or could represent the Holy Trinity;
  • golden rays above dove – may represent God the Father.

Symbols are often at their richest in religious paintings, but there’s also a symbolic language which pervades those of classical myth. One of the most elaborate and opaque examples of this is Botticelli’s Primavera, which has been the subject of a great many detailed readings. Here I’ll remain with rather more straightforward examples, such as Hendrik Goltzius’ painting of the Roman goddess Minerva, and by descent from the Greek goddess Athena (or Athene), here as the personification of Wisdom.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Minerva (as the Personification of Wisdom) (1611), oil on canvas, 214 × 120 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Goltzius shows a classical and fairly complete set of her attributes or lexicon of symbols: the owl, her distinctive helmet here decorated with olive leaves, a spear, books, and great beauty.

Athena may go back to an even earlier Mycenean goddess. In archaic images, Athena is often seen with an owl perched on her hand, and there is a suggestion that she may have originally been a bird goddess, nearly two thousand years BCE. Whatever the origins, there is no doubt that Athena then Minerva were goddesses of wisdom, learning, crafts, and skill, and that they were strongly associated with owls. Thus owls became proxied symbols for wisdom and knowledge.

Minerva of the Romans also had Etruscan influences, which determined her name: the Etruscan goddess of war Menrva, with origins from an Italic moon goddess of similar name, hence her helmet and spear.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Triumph of Victory (c 1614), oil on oak panel, 161 x 236 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens was another highly skilled user of symbols, including symbolic figures or personifications.

In The Triumph of Victory from about 1614, the god of war Mars is dominant, his bloody sword resting on the thigh of Victoria, the personification of victory. She reaches over to place a wreath (either of oak or laurel) on Mars, and holds a staff in her left hand. At the right, Mars is being passed the bundle of crossbow bolts that make up the attribute of Concord.

Under the feet of Mars are the bodies of Rebellion, in the foreground, who still holds his torch, and Discord, on whose cheek a snake is crawling. The bound figure resting against the left knee of Mars is Barbarism.

Another symbol used as widely as the white dove for the Holy Spirit is an old bearded river god with his pot as the source of the river.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Romulus and Remus (1615-16), oil on canvas, 213 x 212 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ delightful painting of Romulus and Remus being discovered by Faustulus shows both a river god, in this case Tiberinus, and his daughter nymph, at the left with the god’s pot.

Some sub-genres had developed particularly richly symbolic traditions. Among these, one of the most relevant to later Symbolism is the vanitas painting, such as Cornelis de Vos’ Allegory on Transitoriness from 1620-29.

Cornelis de Vos (1585–1651), Allegory on Transitoriness (1620-29), oil on canvas, 190 x 194 cm, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

A mother sits looking full of vanitas, as her two children blow soap bubbles, ephemeral symbols of vanitas. Around her, the family’s most valuable possessions are piled up: gold, silver, porcelain, a lute, a string of pearls and other jewellery, and the younger child’s foot rests on a sack of cash.

All the best master painters – including those known mainly for their portraits – had dictionaries of symbols which they could call on when required. Much of the time these were added as small embellishments which bring a knowing smile to the viewer who can read them. But every once in a while, an artist really goes to town in their use of symbols.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae (1799), oil on canvas, 60.3 x 48.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

A famous example of this is Girodet’s second and retaliatory portrait of Mademoiselle Anne Françoise Élisabeth Lange (1772-1816), who refused to pay for her first depiction as Venus. The incensed artist got his revenge by portraying her as Danae, in 1799.

Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos and Queen Eurydice, whose father wanted a male heir. To keep Danaë childless, he locked her up in an underground chamber. But Zeus wanted her, so he impregnated her in the form of golden rain which fell from the roof of her cell. The resulting son was Perseus.

As a motif in painting, Danaë had come to be represented as a reclining, beautiful, nude woman, on whom a stream of golden coins was falling, and it was that stream which Girodet wanted to exploit. It could have only one reading in this context: that Mlle Lange sold her body in return for money. And Girodet was happy to go into even fuller details too.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae (detail) (1799), oil on canvas, 60.3 x 48.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

At the lower left of the tondo is a turkey, a symbol for Lange’s final lover by whom she had a son in 1797, and who married her – hence the ring on the turkey’s foot. A scroll by that is apparently the script for the play Asinaria, by the Roman Titus Maccius Plautus, whose title means the one with the asses. It is a comedy about mistresses, lovers, and money.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae (detail) (1799), oil on canvas, 60.3 x 48.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

At the lower right is the severed head of one of Mlle Lange’s previous lovers, and a white dove, wounded on one wing by one of the falling coins, and being strangled by a gold collar bearing the word Fidelitas, meaning fidelity.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767–1824), Portrait of Mlle. Lange as Danae (detail) (1799), oil on canvas, 60.3 x 48.6 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

In its upper reaches, there is a spider in its web, catching some of the coins. Mlle Lange herself wears peacock feathers, symbolic of vanity. But most barbed of all, she holds up a mirror which is cracked, and in which there is no reflection at all. With her gaze concentrated on the falling coins, she has no interest in looking at what she has become.

Symbols were an extensive visual language which served visual artists well.