Gina's Blog

Symbolism in Renaissance Art & Native American Animal Symbolism

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

More here: http://www.historyofpainters.com/symbol.htm

Animal Characteristics & Meaning in Native American Art (http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-totems.html)

Compare these with the above meanings. Renaissance art was heavily religion. Native American symbolism, on the other hand, was animalistic in nature, in according with their type of faith.

alligator - maternal, revenge oriented, quickness, aggression, and basic survival instincts

ant - group minded, determination, patient, active and industrious

anteater - lethargy, curiosity, nosiness

antelope - active, agile, jumpiness, and willing to sacrifice

armadillo - safety oriented, grounded, and has boundaries

badger – courage, aggressive, healer, having problems relating to others, and energy conduit

bat - rebirth, longevity, secrecy, initiation, good listener, and long life

bear - industrious, instinctive, good listener, and long life

beaver - determined, strong-willed, builder, overseer, and protector

bee - organized, industrial, productive, wise, community, celebration, fertility, defensiveness, obsessive nature, and enjoys life

boar/pig - a very powerful totem – prosperity, spiritual strenth, organized, self-reliant, fearless

buffalo - sacredness, life great strength, abundance, gratitude

bull - insight into the past, fertility, rushing into things without proper preparation

butterfly - metamorphosis, transformation, balance, grace, ability to accept change

camel - survival, positive accomplishments

caribou - traveler, mobility, preference to be nomadic, adaptability to adversity

cat - guardianship, detachment, sensuality, mystery, magic and independence

cheetah - swiftness, insight, focus

cougar - leadership, loyalty, courage, taking responsibility, foresight

cow - swift, insightful and focused

coyote - trickster, intelligence, stealth, wisdom and folley, guile and innocence

cobra - swift and decisive

crab - good luck, protection and success

crane - solitude, justice, longevity, independent, intelligent, and vigilant

crocodile - ensuring your emotions are displayed accurately/appropriately

crow - justice, shape shifting, change, creativity, spiritual strength, energy, community sharing and balance

deer - compassion, peace, intellectual, gentle, caring, kind, subltety, gracefulness, femininity, gentleness, innocence and seller of adventure

dog - noble, faithful, loyal, teaching, protection and guidance

dolphin - kind, salvation, wisdom, happiness, playfulness, prudent, capable of deep emotion and happy

dove - cross-world communication, spirit messenger, peace, gentleness, love

dragon - longevity, richness, prosperity, infinity, wisdom, power and fiery

dragonfly - flighty and carefree, strong imagination, higher aspirations

duck - water energy, helper of seers, can clearly see/deal with emotions

eagle - divine spirit, sacrifice, connection to creator, intelligence, renewal, courage, illumination of spirit, healing, creation, freedom and risk-taker

elephant - strength, power, affection, loyalty, royalty and wisdom

elk - strength and agility, pride, majestic, independence, purification, strength and nobility

falcon - new beginnings, adventure, passionate and leadership

fish - graceful, slyness, open-minded, quick to change one’s mind

flamingo - heart healing, psychic, people person, flirtatious

fox - cunning, agility, quick-witted, diplomacy, wildness, feminine magic of camouflage, shape-shifting and invisibility

frog - water energy, cleansing, rebirth, sensitivity, medicine, hidden beauty, peace, adaptability, poor character judgement and power

gazelle - aggressive

giraffe - communication, intuition, attaining the unreachable, seeing the future

goat - surefootedness, stubbornness, independence, diligence, lack of foresight

goose - self-demanding, reliable, prudent, rigid, vigilance, parenthood and productive

gorilla - family-oriented, intelligence, strength, environmental protector, keeps peace through aggression

grasshopper - good luck, abundance, forward, progressive

grouse - personal power, enlightenment

hawk - messenger, intuition, victory, healing, nobility, recollection, cleansing, visionary power and guardianship

heron/egret - aggressive, self-determined, self-reliant, multi-tasking, balanced

hippopotamus - power, creation, imagination, healing

horse - freedom, stamina, mobility, the land, travel, power and freedom

hummingbird - messenger, timelessness, healing and warrior

jaguar - chaos, shape-shifter, aggressiveness, power

kangaroo - forward, balance, creative, stamina

lion - family, strength, energy, courage, guardian and protector

lizard - conservation, vision, self-protection, hidden defenses

llama - comforting to others, secure

lynx - keeper of secrets, guardian, searching

mole – sensitivity, guidance, searching

monkey - ability to change the environment, health, success

moose - headstrong, longevity, steadfastness and wisdom

mouse - scrutiny, order, organizer and eye for details

octopus - intelligence, camouflage, nocturnal

opossum - diversion, strategist and deceiver

ostrich - grounded, practical

otter - playful, friendly, dynamic, joy, helpfulness and sharing

owl - deception, clairvoyance, insight, messenger

ox - sacrifice, chastity and self-denial

panther - protection, hidden emotions, introspection, caution, careful decision

parrot - communication, beauty, guide for wisdom, mockery, thinking before speaking

peacock - immortality, dignity and self-confidence

pelican - resilient, unselfish, rising above

penguin - self-discipline, grace, self-confidence, spiritual

porcupine - innocence, companionship and trust

prairie dog - swiftness, industrious, constructive, preparedness

puma - companion on journeys to other worlds, grace, silent power

quail - group-work, team play, creator of harmony and group tolerance, protectiveness (especially toward children)

rabbit - fear, timidity, nervousness, humility, rebirth

raccoon - curiousity and cleanliness

ram - stoic, sensitive, persevering, curious, imaginative

rat - fertility, stealth, scavenging, intelligence, enjoys luxury

raven - introspection, courage, self-knowledge, magic

rhinoceros - wisdom, solitary, insightful, solid

roadrunner – mental agility, speed, opportunistic

Rooster - Vanity, likes to be showered with gifts and attention, early riser, settling for nothing less than the best

Salmon - Proud, intense, confident, wisdom, inspiration

Scorpion - Transforming, strong, inspiring, chaotic,  passionate

Seagull - Versatility, loud, easy-going nature, creativity, laziness

Seahorse - Confidence and grace

Seal - Love, longing, dilemma, active imagination, creativity

Shark - Hunter, survival, and adaptability

Skunk - Reputation, presence, and strength

Snail - Protective, aware, solitary.

Snake - Impulsive, shrewdness, rebirth, transformation, initiation, and wisdom

Spider - Balance, wisdom, creativity, communication

Squirrel – Planner and gatherer

Stag – Lord of the forest, masculine power of regeneration, signs.

Swan - Grace, balance and innocence, soul, love, beauty, of the self

Tiger - Strength, valor, power, and energy

Toad  - Inner strength, luck, self-examination

Turkey - Generosity, life-giver, and sharer

Turtle - Nurturer, shy, and protecting

Unicorn - Purity, innocence, dreamer, personal power, gentle

Weasel - Strength, energy, ingenuity and stealth

Whale – Wisdom, provider, intelligence, and kindness.

Wolf – Loyalty, perseverance, success, intuition, and spirit

Woodpecker - Sensitive, protective, and devotion

Zebra - Agility and individuality

More here: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-totems.html

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4 Responses to "Symbolism in Renaissance Art & Native American Animal Symbolism"

Great information. I love http://www.historyofpainters.om. 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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