8 min readMay 17, 2021


Symbolism is of great importance in the history of art and develops over time along with culture. The worldview of a medieval man differs from that of a modern human and has certain features, without knowledge of which it is impossible to fully perceive the paintings of that time. The semantic structure of the symbol is multi-layered and is designed for the active internal work of the perceiver, i.e. the viewer. The structure of the symbol seeks to immerse each particular phenomenon in the element of being and to give through this phenomenon a holistic image. If a thing allows itself to be viewed, it is as if the symbol itself is “looking” at us. The meaning of the symbol cannot be deciphered by a simple effort of the intellect, it must be “lived into”, the symbol must be known. There is a kinship between symbol and myth; a symbol is a myth — and inherits its social and communicative functions. When we study a symbol, we not only take it apart and examine it as an object but simultaneously allow its creator to appeal to us: in this way the artist not only arouses feelings in the viewer but also makes him/her a part of what is happening in the picture.

Symbols are recognizable elements that convey specific meanings, ideas, concepts — they serve as a reliable “language” in all the visual arts and especially in painting. Undoubtedly, some symbols arose independently among peoples; many similar symbols can be explained by common psychological and cultural reasons, for example, the sun symbol in the form of a wheel, the lightning symbol in the form of a hammer; but in many cases, cultural interaction of peoples and transmission of symbolism through cultural and trade relations, coinage, religious beliefs can be found. Many symbols have acquired an immensely broad meaning, such as those of the cross, the eagle, the fish, and symbols such as the lily and the rose have become a permanent feature in depictions of St. Mary; St. George strikes the sea dragon with his spear; a halo surrounds the heads of the saints.

The symbol appeals not only to one’s mind but also to human feelings, subconscious, generates complex associations and often refers to the era, religion, culture of the people. If the symbol is polysemantic, it is necessary to take that of its meanings, which corresponds to the era, time, the general order, the spirit of the picture — does not contradict and destroy it. Symbols can be designated by a number, a property, a form. For example, the number 7 is a symbol of perfection and completeness (seven colors of the rainbow, seven notes, seven days of the week, seven virtues, seven deadly sins); blue (color of the sky) is a symbol of everything spiritual; the shape of a circle resembling the sun and the moon is a symbol of divine perfection. Another group of symbols are objects, phenomena, or actions, as well as artistic images that embody some idea. For example, the olive branch is a symbol of peace, the daffodil flower is a symbol of death, the infant is a symbol of the human soul. Light is a symbol of spiritual insight, divine grace; the rainbow (the meeting of Heaven and Earth) is a symbol of God’s reconciliation with men, the forgiveness of human sins. Weaving symbolizes the creation of the universe, the world, deciding the fate of all things; fishing — conversion (Christ taught his disciples to be “fishers of men”). Artistic image of the centaur — a symbol of base passions, strife (if depicted with a quiver, arrows and bow), in religious compositions — a symbol of heresy. The symbol is associated with the external features of the object and always reflects its deeper essence. For example, the owl is a nocturnal bird, so one of its symbolic meanings is sleep, death.

The form, themes and content of art were closely related to religion and were under the strictest control of the church, so in painting, there were rules and techniques — canons, which each artist had to follow. Types of images, compositional schemes, symbolism were approved and illuminated by the church, but the canon did not constrain the thought of a medieval painter, it disciplined him and forced him to pay more attention to details. The language of religious symbolism had to convey complex and profound concepts of spiritual reality. At that time, many could not read, but the language of symbols was instilled in any believer from childhood.

The symbolism of color, gestures, and objects depicted is the language of the icon. The proportions of the face were deliberately distorted. It was believed that the eyes were the mirror of the soul, that is why the eyes on icons are so large and penetrating. From the time of Rublev at the beginning of the 15th century, the eyes were not so exaggeratedly large, nevertheless, they were always given great attention. Theophanes the Greek depicts some of the saints with closed eyes or empty eye sockets — thus the artist tried to convey the idea that their eyes were set not on the outer world, but inside — contemplating the divine truth and inner prayer. The figures of the depicted biblical characters were painted less densely, with few layers, deliberately elongated, which created the visual effect of their lightness, overcoming the corporeality and fullness of their bodies. They seemed to hover in space above the ground, which is an expression of their spirituality and transfigured state. The image of the man occupies the main space of the icon. All the rest — chambers, mountains, trees — play a secondary role, their emblematic nature is brought to the maximum conventionality. However, they also have a certain semantic meaning: the mountain symbolizes the way to God, the oak symbolizes eternal life, the bowl and the vine symbolize the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, etc.

All painters used the symbolism of the color of paint, each color bringing its own meaning and mood:

- Gold is the color symbolizing the radiance of Divine glory in which the saints abide. The gold background of the icon, the halos of the saints, the golden glow around the figure of Christ, the gold clothes of the Savior and the Mother of God — all this serves to express holiness and belonging to the world of eternal values;

- Yellow or ochre — the color of the higher power of the angels, the closest in spectrum to the gold, often simply a substitute for it;

- White is the color symbolizing purity, belonging to the divine world. White is used for the garments of Christ, for example, in The Transfiguration, as well as for the garments of the righteous in the icons depicting the Last Judgment;

- Black is the color symbolizing, in some cases, hell, the maximum distance from God; in other cases, it is a sign of sorrow and humility;

- Light Blue, the color of the Virgin, also meant purity and righteousness;

- Blue — the color of greatness, symbolized the divine, heavenly, the incomprehensibility of mystery and the depth of revelation;

- Red — royal color, the symbol of power and might (cloak of Michael the Archangel — the leader of the heavenly host and St. George — the winner of the serpent); in other cases could be a symbol of redeeming blood, martyrdom.

- Green — symbolized eternal life, eternal flowering, and the color of the Holy Spirit.

Gestures also had a special symbolic meaning, as the gesture in icons conveys a certain spiritual impulse and carries certain spiritual information:

- A hand clasped to the chest — heartfelt empathy;

- A hand raised up — a call to repentance;

- A hand stretched forward with an open palm — a sign of obedience;

- Two hands raised up — a prayer for peace;

- Hands raised forward — a prayer for help, a gesture of supplication;

- Hands close to cheeks — a sign of sadness, sorrow.

Of great importance were also objects in hands of the depicted saints as signs of their ministry. For example, the Apostle Paul is usually depicted with a book in his hands, symbolizing the Gospel, and more rarely with a sword, symbolizing the Word of God. Peter has usually held keys — the keys to the kingdom of God. Martyrs are depicted with a cross in their hands or a palm branch — symbols of belonging to the kingdom of heaven, and prophets usually hold scrolls of their prophecies in their hands.

Since the spread of Christianity in the West and in the East took place under different historical conditions, church art also developed in different ways. In Western Europe the icon had to show and tell the Gospel story as truthfully as possible, hence the increasing realism and the gradual transformation of the icon into a painting with a religious theme, and as a consequence the emergence of “art nova”. The term “art nova” borrowed from the history of music, defines the art of the Netherlands in the first half of the 15th century. Intuitive and religious-mystical knowledge of the world formed the basis of a new North European culture. One of the founders of the art of the Early Northern Renaissance is the Dutch painter Jan van Eyck (born c. 1390 — d. 1441). He created the Portrait of the Arnolfini couple, a unique phenomenon in the entire European painting of that time. The artist depicted people in their everyday environment, without any connection with a religious subject or images from Holy Scripture.

The painting depicts the merchant Giovanni Arnolfini of Lucca, Italy, and his young wife. Both are dressed in smart festive costumes in keeping with the elaborate and fanciful fashion of the time. Their poses are solemnly motionless, their faces are full of the deepest seriousness. At the back of the cozy room a round mirror hangs, the symbol of God’s all-seeing eye, reflecting the figures of two more people present in the room, but not visible to the viewer, obviously marriage witnesses. In one of them, the artist depicted himself, as the inscription above the mirror reads: “Jan van Eyck was here”. The painter lovingly depicts the things surrounding the newlyweds. These objects reveal much about the way of life of their owners, emphasizing their burgher virtues — thrift, modesty. The ritual takes place in the holy of holies of the burgher home, the bedroom, where all things have a hidden meaning, alluding to the sanctity of the marital vows and the family hearth. Almost all the objects depicted on the canvas have symbolic meanings: the dog denotes fidelity, the pair of shoes on the floor speaks of the unity of the married couple, the brush is a sign of purity, the rosary is a symbol of piety, the bulging mirror is the eye of the world, the oranges are the fruit of the Garden of Eden and hint at heavenly bliss, and the apple hints at the falling into sin. The single candle lit in the chandelier during the day is the symbolic and mystical presence of the Holy Spirit sanctifying the sacrament, as immemorial torches and lighted lanterns have been carried in wedding processions.