A SYMBOL is simply 'something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else' (OED). We seem to have a natural tendency to create symbols in the way we think and in our art, which must reflect a deep-seated trait of the human spirit. Take the lion, for instance. In all essentials it is just 'a large, fierce, tawny, loud-roaring animal of the cat family'. Once we begin to call it the 'King of Beasts' or 'Lord of the Jungle' it is on its way to becoming a symbol. In fact, of all creatures it is one of the most richly endowed with symbolism, much of it religious, even among people where it has never been known in the wild state.
Symbols in art function at many different levels according to the beliefs and social customs that inspire the artist. Among the Chinese they may sometimes express no more than a graceful compliment. A painted vase or dish offered as a gift by a visitor to his host might, by its choice of decorative images, wish the recipient a long life, many children, or even success in the state examinations. This symbolic language was once widely understood among educated Chinese.
On another level are those images — and they form the great majority — that are related to worship. Let us consider for a moment the human body, when the artist uses it to represent a god or goddess. By itself a body is impersonal and anonymous. It must first be clothed and accoutred in a distinctive fashion in order to make a recognizable deity. We put it in armour to represent, say, Mars, the god of war. If we then add a pair of wings it becomes the Archangel Michael, Commander of the Heavenly Host. In thus giving substance and identity to beings whose form is, in reality, unknowable the artist is making a symbolic image. The Stoic philosopher, Zeno, who lived around 300 BC, put it this way. The Greek gods, with their distinctive, readily identifiable forms, were, he said, not anthropomorphic at all; they were all symbols, the different aspects of a single divine being whose true nature was wholly impersonal. When we come to oriental art we find it thronging with deities in human form, most of whom represent abstract, metaphysical concepts that have no counterpart in real life. They, too, are symbols.
But even the sacred figures of history may be treated as symbols. We can only guess how the Buddha or Jesus looked in life. The Buddha, with his tight, curly hair and top-knot, tuft between the brows, pendent ear-lobes and mystic signs on hands and feet, bears little or no physical resemblance, we may assume, to the historical founder of Buddhism. Jesus, when crowned and enthroned in the style of an East Roman emperor, is immediately recognizable as the sovereign King of Heaven, the Almighty. Yet when clad in a peasant's tunic, girded at the waist, and carrying a lamb round his shoulders, he becomes the Good Shepherd of the gospels. These are symbolic images of the religious leaders.