ArtLex Art Dictionary




ssymbol - A form, image or subject representing a meaning other than the one with which it is usually associated.

Here are two paintings particularly famous for the symbols included in them:






see thumbnail to leftJan van Eyck (Dutch, died 1441), The Arnolfini Marriage [The Betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami], 1434, oil on wood panel, 81.8 x 59.7 cm, National Gallery, London. The bride to be has placed her right hand into the left hand of her fiancé to symbolize their intention to wed. Some of the other symbols: a dog symbolizes love and fidelity, a pair of white slippers in the lower left symbolize the sanctity of marriage, fruits on the windowsill symbolize fertility and original sin, a candle burning in daylight acknowledges faith in God as well as his all-seeing eye. see thumbnail to rightA convex mirror hangs on the wall behind the bride and groom. In this mirror is a reflection of the backs of the principal figures, accompanied by those of the painter and another man who witness the betrothal. The frame of the mirror contains ten medallions portraying scenes from the life of Christ. See convex, Dutch art, frame, and mirror.





see thumbnail to leftHieronymus [Jerome] Bosch (Dutch, 1450-1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych), c. 1500, Prado, Madrid. Creation of the World, depicting the third day of creation, the two closed outer wings (or shutters) for this triptych, each is 220 x 97 cm. Garden of Earthly Delights (Ecclesia's paradise), the central panel, 220 x 195 cm. Left wing: The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden), 220 x 97 cm. Right wing: Hell, 220 x 97 cm. Detail from right wing. Bosch worked at a time when symbols constituted a basic visual language. Although contemporary scholars don't always agree on interpretations of his paintings, the list below suggests possible meanings for some of the symbols found in this example. See more of his paintings in articles about altarpiece and Gothic.

Meanings for some of the symbols in Bosch's paintings
symbol  meaning
black birds unbeliever; death or rotting flesh
breasts fertility
closed book the futility of knowledge in dealing with human stupidity
ears gossip
eggs sexual creation; key symbol of alchemy
fish false prophets; lewdness
flames fires of hell
flying monsters devil's envoys
fruit carnal pleasure
funnel deceit and intemperance; false alchemist or false doctor
ice skater folly
keys knowledge
knives punishment of evil
mussel shell infidelity
owl great learning
pig false priest; gluttony
rabbits multiplication of the race
rat lies against the Church; filth; sex
spheres alchemical apparatus


Here are other works in which symbolism has been given importance:



see thumbnail to leftChina, Emperor's 12-Symbol Robe, 18th century, Ching dynasty, silk, metallic thread, 63 1/2 x 56 3/4 inches (161.29 x 144.15 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. The emblems reserved for the emperor's ceremonial robes were the twelve imperial symbols seen on this garment: sun, moon, constellation, mountain, pair of dragons, bird, cups, water weed, millet, fire, ax, and the symmetrical "fu" symbol. See Chinese art and costume.


front and back of a one dollar bill


see thumbnail to leftUnited States of America, One Dollar Federal Reserve Note, 1988, recto and verso, engraving on paper (a cotton and linen blend, with red and blue minute silk fibers running through it), 2 5/8 x 6 inches. This design is similar to all one dollar bills produced from 1957-present. See articles about symbolism on the one dollar Federal Reserve Note, numismatics and currency, recto and verso.








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Also see allegory, attribute, compass rose, crown, definition, dingbat, feng shui, heraldry, icon, iconography, index, labyrinth, logo, mirror, nail, personification, rebus, semiotics, sign, signature, snake, and Symbolism.




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