Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art

By James Hall; Chris Puleston | Go to book overview
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4. Earth and Sky

Aureole. Radiance that surrounds the whole body, or most of it, unlike the HALO, which is round the head only. An aura, seen as flames emanating from the body, was once believed to denote divinity, like the flame flickering on the brow of Ascanius, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, when his father bore him from Troy. 1 The Pentecostal fire would appear to be a similar phenomenon. 2 The same belief was held by Hindus; in Indian art from the 2nd-4th cents. sacred figures, especially in groups, are framed in an arch of flames (Sk. prabhatorana) that springs from the tops of two pillars. The ring of flames surrounding dancing SHIVA has been interpreted in various ways. As a symbol of the light of truth, the energy of divine wisdom emanating from the god, it corresponds to the flaming aureoles that surround the Tantric forms of certain Buddhas and bodhisattvas in India, Indonesia, China and Japan [i: Japanese, 13th cent.]. A pointed aureole represents the leaf of the pipal, or bodhi tree of Buddhism (see VAIROCANA: Acala). In Christian art devotional images of the Virgin Mary and Christ at the Transfiguration are often depicted within an aureole (see MANDORLA).

Bubbles. Symbol of the brevity and transience of life in VANITAS paintings, and in allegories of time and death. Its source is a Latin proverb, Est homo bulla, man is but a bubble, which was revived in the Renaissance. Bubbles are usually blown by infants or putti [ii: French, 17th cent.].

Carbuncle, 'a glowing coal'. Semi-precious type of garnet which glows dark red in certain lights. It was once believed to emit light spontaneously. Carbuncles adorned the chariots of APOLLO 3 and Aurora. It is a Christian symbol of the blood of Christ and martyred saints. Five carbuncles on the arms and in the middle of a medieval crucifix symbolize Christ's wounds [iii].

Cloud (Ch. yün; Jap. kumo). The oldest cloud symbol is Chinese, described in the Po-ku-t'u as a 'cloud-and-thunder pattern'. 4 It is a type of MEANDER which evolved from primitive pictographs and is first seen in Han dynasty art. It symbolizes plenty, which is a heavenly gift brought by the rain. One of the many roles of the Chinese DRAGON was bringer of spring rain, represented as the 'dragon-among-clouds' (Ch. yün lung). A glimpse of this heavenly creature, quickly obscured by cloud, symbolized not merely the promise of abundance but the momentary vision of the Tao itself (see EIGHT IMMORTALS). The theme was popularized in Sung painting and reached Japan where the setting is often the sacred Mt Fujiyama. Clouds with rain, or a dragon, also represent the YIN AND YANG and may denote sexual union.


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