Symbols in Art

By Carroll, Colleen | Arts & Activities, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Symbols in Art


Carroll, Colleen, Arts & Activities


In the Egyptian picture language known as hieroglyphics, the profile of a standing man with arms reaching upward symbolizes praise and welcome. With this image in mind, we welcome you to another year of the Clip & Save Art Prints series with a fascinating theme, "Symbols in Art."

Egyptian Hieroglyphics are just one example of this year's theme; one that is at once rich, mysterious and, in many cases, deeply complex. Volumes have been written on the topic, which can be overwhelming in its depth and breadth. To make it less intimidating and more accessible, let's start at the beginning by examining what a symbol actually is.

Put most basically, symbols are something used to represent something else. Symbols can represent ideas, concepts, beliefs, doctrines and feelings. Symbols can have powerful meaning and evoke strong emotion, such as the crucifix in Christianity or the Star of David in Judaism.

Symbols can be political, such as nation's flag, or inspirational, like the five interconnecting circles that represent the spirit of the Olympic Games. Symbols can be personal, such as a coat of arms representing a family. Some symbols transcend individual nations, faiths and ethnicities, such as the olive branch or dove as symbols of peace.

Symbols may have profound meaning for some, yet no meaning for others. For a symbol to have significance, its meaning must be known to the viewer. Take, for example, the Chinese symbol for yin and yang. To those who understand its origins as a philosophical explanation of the workings of the universe, it is a symbol that represents a concrete idea. To those who know nothing of the symbol's origins in Chinese philosophy, it's merely a circular design with opposing colors and shapes.

For a symbol to have meaning, it's important to understand what it represents. This is an important point to remember as we teach students about the ways in which artists incorporate symbols into their work. Why does an artist include a particular symbol in the work, and for what purpose? Because symbolism can be quite abstract, especially for young learners, understanding a symbol's context within history will take some of the mystery out of this often perplexing subject.

Symbolism is humankind s oldest form of visual communication Artists have incorporated symbols into their work since man first began to delve into the world of visual expression. Long before the advent of written language, man used symbols to convey what he did and did not understand of the world.

As early as 25,000 B.C., Stone Age artists carved female figures with swollen abdomens and breasts as symbols of life and fertility. Cave artists working in what is now France and Spain, whose work dates from 15,000-10,000 B.C., painted abstract symbols on cave walls along with representations of animals. Although archeologists don't know the meanings of these images, it's clear these prehistoric artists were incorporating symbols and symbolic content into their visual language. Evidence of prehistoric art that includes symbolic representations was not confined to present day Europe. Cave art has been found on the continents of North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.

To this day, people are still using realistic and abstract symbols to represent myriad human thoughts and emotions. Graffiti artists, though often maligned for their defacement of public property, are contemporary examples of this early human need to create a symbol language of visual representation.

ANCIENT SYMBOLS The use of symbols in art can be found in nearly every culture and historical period. Hieroglyphics were embedded into every aspect of ancient Egyptian art: tombs, paintings, statuary and decorative arts. The ankh, a hieroglyphic pictograph representing life, holds its symbolic meaning to this day. The ancient Greek civilization is famous for its use of symbols in art. Greek gods and goddesses, such as Athena (goddess of war and wisdom), Hermes (god of merchants and messenger of Zeus) and Zeus (god of the sky and ruler of Olympus) appear throughout Greek art with their representative symbols: Athena with the owl and olive tree, Hermes with his winged boots, and Zeus with his thunderbolt. …

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