Gina's Blog

Symbolism in Renaissance Art

Posted on: January 10, 2010

Renaissance art is full of symbolism.

The Hidden Symbolism  of Fruit in Western painting

A ripe apple, a peach, a golden pear, a lemon, a juicy strawberry, an pomegranate—all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. For painters of the Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance periods, fruit was part of a rich visual language.  Art-works exhibited in public, mostly in churches and courthouses, were a stern proclamation that everyone could readily understand. These paintings, with their layer upon layer of vivid symbolism, served as a grim reminder to anyone harboring lustful thoughts or indulging in carnal pleasures. They warned the viewer that death was just around the corner and Satan was at the ready with his pitchfork. Paintings throughout Western history have been used as guides in illuminating the divine mysteries of Gods Holy Word.  Bread and wine are prominently featured in painting throughout Western art history.

In a culture of limited literacy symbolic imagery was vital in enlightening the masses. Most prominently featured Fruit in Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting:

pomegranate –  Symbolizes eternal life; divine prosperity; unity of the Christian community. The pomegranate can also signify fall from grace and mans sinful nature. Also associated with Saint Catherine, as the mystical bride of Christ.

apple - Carnal pleasures and sin; sins of mankind, original sin; “forbidden fruit”.

fig –  Symbolizes loss of innocence and a fall from grace. Adam and Eve wore fig leaves when they first recognized their own nakedness. “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” (Genesis 3:7)

pear Symbolizes marital faith. Also associated with Saint Catherine, as the mystical bride of Christ.

Grapes Signify lewdness and lustful thoughts.

orange -Symbol of free will.

lemon – Symbolic of a bitter heart or a sour disposition; resentment; unresolved conflict.

strawberry -Symbol of harmony, nourishment of the soul.

peach - Symbol of virtue and honor. A rotting or half-eaten peach symbolizes a woman who has tarnished her reputation with immoral behavior.

Wine made from grapes is a symbol of the Eucharist. The wine is the wine of Sacrifice. The blood of Jesus Christ and symbolic of the holy sacrament of Christ Himself.  “This embodies Me: where this is, I am: receiving this, you receive Me.” “This is My Blood”–that is, “This is My life: My life which is given for you: My life which in death I laid down and in rising again from the dead I resumed: My life which is to be the principle of spiritual life in you.” “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life…. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me and I in him.”

The Hidden Symbolism  of Colors in Western ART

The symbolic interpretation of Colors used in  Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting

Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding the Colors.

Blue –  symbolizes purity; The Virgin Mary; Virgin and Child; The Immaculate Conception

Purple – symbolizes Christ in Majesty, In Byzantine Style painting Important Holy figures wear purple robes, outlined in red.

Red- a symbol of greediness and lust. Denotes sin; sins of mankind, original sin; temptation, Judas,  Harrowing of Hell, The Fiery Furnace, Slaughter of the Innocents, Apocalypse

Green –  symbolizes the Resurrection, the Ascension, Baptism

White - is a sign of innocence; Birth, Youth, Betrothal and Marriage; The Virgin Mary; Virgin and Child; The Immaculate Conception, The Holy Family

Grey/Black/Dark Brown – symbolic of the Entombment, Crosses, Crucifixes Yellow – symbolizes a remembrance of the spiritual world ; miracles, harmony, sustenance of the soul

Pink – symbolizes eternal innocence; The Virgin Mary; Virgin and Child; The Immaculate Conception

Orange –  a symbol of materialism and desire for worldly goods in favor of spiritual health. Denotes indulgence; carnal desires, original sin; corruption, Judas.

The Hidden Symbolic Meaning of Animals in Western Painting

The iconographical interpretation of Animals in  Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting

A leering monkey, a playful finch, a scheming snake, a clever crow, a robin, an osprey—all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. For painters of the Gothic, Early Renaissance and High Renaissance eras, symbols were part of a rich visual language. In a culture of restricted literacy symbolic imagery was vital in keeping sinners on the path to heaven.  In Medieval times people believed that animals had the ability to recognize the quality of piety or evil in humans and the creatures reacted accordingly.  If a sparrow landed upon someone’s head or shoulder the person was believed to be especially virtuous. However if a raven nested on a villagers roof his home was often put to the torch as this was sign of a sinful dwelling.  Dogs were thought to posses  power  to look into a persons soul and were used to determine if a person was a heretic or a witch. The canines were often included in courtroom proceedings and if a dog look intently or growled at the accused, the person was judged guilty of witchcraft and burned alive in the village square.

Wolf - symbolizes compassion and mercy. The wolf was used as the emblem for many early Saints including  St. Francis of Assisi who is often shown with a wolf .

ermine –  symbolizes truth, fidelity, mischief making.  Often associated with the aristocracy or royalty.

White Horse - a symbol of victory, conquest, goodness  and invincibility. “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. ” — Revelation 19:11

The ape symbolizes a lustful soul filled with sinful thoughts.

cat – symbolizes shrewdness, treachery, trickery and watchfulness. Often associated with Satan, witchcraft or sorcery.

winged ox –  represents Luke the Evangelist, one of the four evangelist.

ox – symbolizes strength, power, humility “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” Matt. 11:28

The Vulture epitomized greed, corruption  and ruthless power.

The singing robin symbolizes deliverance from evil and God’s holy mercy. A caged robin signifies  removal from Gods holy grace.

The Eagle is a symbol of Christ and of regeneration by baptism.

eagle – represents John the Evangelist, one of the four Evangelist.   The eagle also the symbolizes  the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

winged lion –  represents Mark the Evangelist, one of the four evangelist.

lion – a symbol of power, majesty, wisdom, tyranny,  viciousness, dignity, and leadership. The lion represents both Jesus Christ as well as Satan, a wise king or a tyrant.

lamb – symbolizes  humility, peace, and innocence.  The lamb represents Christ as the Lamb, and also Christians as the flock.

Dolphin –  sign of the resurrection and  symbolizes Christ  guiding Christians to heaven.

Goat – symbol of Satan. Satan is often depicted as a horned and hoofed goat-like creature.

Unicorn, a symbol of purity, harmony, the arrival of Spring. Since the Middle Ages the unicorn was a symbol of chastity and innocence, it was believed that a unicorn could only be tamed by a virgin’s gentle stroke.

Pig – symbolizes  material desires, excess and self-indulgence.

Dog – a symbol of loyalty, openness, dependability and fidelity

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4 Responses to "Symbolism in Renaissance Art"

Great information. I love My favorite website for anything about the history of art.

Thank you very much for this information! I am trying to do an Art project using fruit symbolism, and this has helped immensely.

Keep up the great work!

wow! gr8 piece of info…would have liked it better if there was more…

Thanks! I read about Native American symbolism on totem poles the other day. The animals on the totems mean different things. Might be adding that soon. :)

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