Three Essential Symbols for Understanding Art Hints for reading symbolism in paintings, from mirrors


The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’) 1644 by Diego Velázquez. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Learning to read paintings often begins with deciphering the subject matter, and to do that, it can help to have a grounding in some of the more common symbols found in art. Whilst there are many hundreds of subjects and associated symbols, I’ve chosen three of the most common to offer as a first-principles guide to reading symbolism in art.

Mirrors

The symbolic meaning of mirrors in art is wonderfully ambivalent. Two apparently contradictory themes emerge, one associated with the virtue of truth (for the mirror is said not to lie) and the other with the corruption of truth: with vanity and the dark quality of luxury.

But perhaps the two themes are not so contradictory after all, for what unites them is the sense of something being revealed. The idea is that mirrors in art reflect a hidden truth, a window to an “anti-world” – a more unvarnished version of our own.

We are accustomed to demons and supernatural creatures having no reflection on account of being dispossessed of a soul. Hence, in art, the depiction of a mirror is usually for some allegorical purpose. It is a way of saying, “The mirror reveals a deeper truth.”




Narcissus (1594–1596) by Caravaggio. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Source Wikimedia Commons

When we look at ourselves in a mirror, our gaze is returned by the very gaze that looks. Like Narcissus, whom Ovid tells was punished for spurning the love of Echo, we can become entranced by our own reflection, pining after the mysterious other in the mirror or pool.

Mirrors hold us. The ancient world believed a person’s soul was contained in their reflection. If someone dies, it is customary in some cultures to cover up all the mirrors in the house to ensure safe passage of the soul to the afterlife. Like departed souls, we are prone to being ensnared in the pane of a looking glass.

In art, the personification of Pride (Latin Superbia) is sometimes shown holding a mirror in which the image of Satan can be seen. The sin of Lust (or Luxury; Latin Luxuria, Libido) often holds a mirror too, symbolizing woman’s vanity and hence her power to seduce. Lust was thought to pertain to principally to women; for men, Avarice or greed was the equivalent vice.





Vanitas or ‘Woman at her toilet’ (circa 1515) by Titian. Louvre Museum, Paris. Source Wikimedia Commons

A “vanitas” painting is a symbolic work of art expressing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. Often featuring a woman, she is shown attending to her hair with a comb and looking into a mirror as she does so. Sometimes an inscription on a scroll announces the Latin Omnia Vanitas — “All is vanity”, with the figure surrounded by the transient pleasures of jewels and gold coins. To underline the link between vanity and futility, the figure of Death sometimes appears too.

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the recumbent nude became merged with images of Venus, identified with the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. One of the most well-known mirrors in art is that gazed into by Venus as painted by Diego Velázquez in 1644. Here, Venus is shown in her private chamber, stretched out on silk bedclothes whilst her mischievous offspring Cupid holds up a mirror so she can enjoy her own beauty (whilst we, the viewer, are meant to do the same). We will meet with Cupid again soon…




The Toilet of Venus (‘The Rokeby Venus’) 1644 by Diego Velázquez. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Yet whilst Vanitas works of art examine the corrupting power of being fascinated with our own image, mirrors have also become associated with something opposite: self-knowledge. For the bearer of the mirror, to be able to see her or himself as they really are is a sign of wisdom.





Allegory of Prudence (1645) by Simon Vouet. Fabre Museum, Montpellier. Source Wikimedia Commons

Hence the allegorical figure of Prudence is personified as a woman looking into a mirror whilst holding onto a snake — the latter being derived from Matthew (10:16) “Be ye wise as serpents.”

Like Prudence, the figure of Truth is similarly shown holding a mirror, the reflection of which is not meant to lie. The figure of Truth is often depicted alongside that of Time, based on the idea that truth will be revealed over time, supported by the ancient saying Veritas filia temporis — “Truth is the daughter of Time”.



An allegory of Truth and Time (1584) by Annibale Carracci. Windsor Castle, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

In the painting An allegory of Truth and Time (1584) by Annibale Carracci, Truth can be seen holding a mirror, with Father Time having just “revealed” her from the depths of the well out of which he climbs. Truth radiates light while two-faced Deceit is trampled under her feet.

Apples

Items of fruit appear in works of art on a frequent basis, undoubtedly because myth and tradition have long associated fruit with the paradisal qualities of vitality and succulence — such as the mythical golden apples that grew in a beautiful garden, guarded by the three Hesperides nymphs.

As objects of temptation, fruit have also be used as a sign of weakness in those who fall to their allure. A pomegranate, for instance, is synonymous with sin and fallen women due to its inclusion in the Greek myth of Persephone, who took a single bite from the fruit and in doing so secured her fate as a prisoner of the Underworld.

Apples in particular carry more symbolic meanings than most other fruit. Tradition has it that it was an apple that Eve plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil after she was lured into doing so by the crafty serpent. The well known passage in Genesis 3:6 tells us what happened next: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Whilst the Bible never mentions an apple specifically, the fruit became the commonplace choice for artists in their representations of the story, as in Rubens’ The Fall of Man painting.




‘The Fall of Man’ by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Source Wiki Commons

Yet, like so many symbols in art, it was possible to find a reversed meaning in the symbol of an apple.

In this painting, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the Child Christ holds an apple in the left had and a piece of bread in the other. In this scheme, the apple echoes the symbol of the original sin, whilst the bread (the body of Christ) is transformed it into a sign of redemption.



Madonna and child under an Apple tree (c.1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Oil on canvas. Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In other words, if Adam and Eve were responsible for the “fall” of humankind, then Christ is suggested as being the redeemer. The symbol of an apple is a way of uniting the stories into a grander narrative, reaching back in time and stretching into the future.

Arrows

Probably the most prolific arrow-shooter in art is the young Cupid, the god of Love. His arrows were of two sorts: gold arrows that kindled love in their targets, and lead arrows that drove love away. With these two varieties, Cupid was able to instigate all sorts of mischief: as in the story of Apollo and Daphne where Cupid’s arrows caused Apollo to fall head-over-heels, only to find that Daphne wanted to flee in horror.





Cupid hides in the bottom-left of the painting as he watches ‘Apollo Pursuing Daphne’ (c. 1755/1760) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source public domain.

But not all love was unrequited. Cupid’s appearance in art is often to tell the viewer that the theme of the work is about the positive power of love, even if Cupid himself plays no part in the original story. So for instance, sometimes a depiction of Mars, the god of War, will show Cupid in the background playing with his weapons, offering an allegory of the defeat of War by Love.






Mars with Cupid (1649) by Guercino. Oil on canvas. Cincinnati Art Museum, US. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone was willing to be attacked by Cupid’s arrows. Take Diana, for instance, the virgin huntress of ancient myth, who is sometimes shown in art carrying a shield to protect her from Love’s piercing darts. As a personification of Chastity, Diana was wary of Love’s mischief and occasionally appears in art punishing Cupid for his love-spreading habits.

Diana was one of the twelve major gods of Olympus, most often represented as an athletic figure who herself carries a quiver of arrows and a bow to fire them. She is an earth goddess, twin sister of the sun god Apollo, usually seen hunting in a forest accompanied by a pack of hounds. Her hand is raised to draw an arrow and send it flying towards some unsuspecting prey.



Diane the Huntress (c.1603) by Giuseppe Cesari. Oil on wood. Capitoline Museums, Rome. Image source Wikimedia Commons


Representations of Diana were popular in European art for they allowed artists to depict a complex allegorical figure: a stern and uncompromising female who represented chastity, whilst also depicting her in a state of undress to intimate her womanly qualities. In this theme, popular was the story of when Diana was accidentally seen bathing by the young prince Actaeon, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses.

Disrobed in a woodland grotto or glade alongside her nymphs, Diana was spied upon by the prince; Actaeon’s punishment for glimpsing divine nudity was to be turned into a stag and pursued by his own dogs, who had no hesitation in tearing him to pieces.

As Diana demonstrates, arrows are weapons too of course. As such, they are also strongly associated with images of death and martyrdom: Achilles was felled by an arrow striking his heel, whilst in Christian imagery both Saints Augustine and Sebastian can be recognised by the arrows that pierce their torsos.

In the most extreme case, sometimes the figure of death is shown holding an arrow instead of the more traditional scythe — a sign that he is ready to take a life whenever he deems the moment is right.



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