Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art
1 volume: List of Sources, Supplementary Index
When looking at a still life painting one often looks at the bowl of fruit or flowers, nods and passes on. After all, it’s just a bowl of fruit isn’t it? Well, a look at the entry on “still life” in this book will quickly convince you that there is more than meets the eye in these artworks. In fact, these works are often commentaries on the world and spiritual matters, not just pictures of beautiful fruit and flowers. For instance, if the picture contains a skull, this serves as a reminder that all things, even the beautiful, must die, while an hour glass, candle or clock refers to the passage of time, an overturned cup, bowl or pitcher represents emptiness and a full bowl of fruit may symbolize gluttony and so on.
This book explores the meanings of these allusions and other symbols found in Christian and classical art. There are a few drawings accompanying the text illustrating different terms. The entries in the book explain the meaning of objects depicted (such as the skulls found in Dutch and Flemish still life paintings), describe various ways different mythological and historical characters are consistently depicted (Homer as a blind man, Jupiter/Zeus as a bull, St. George with the Dragon, etc.), and the ways different concepts (ie.,Hope, Charity, Love, Gluttony) are illustrated by different symbols. The supplementary index refers readers to religious beliefs, ideas and social customs mentioned in the entries.
The references found in this book add a layer of meaning to artwork and will assist in understanding the allegorical meanings that underlie much Christian and Classical art. So the next time you see a pile of Roman ruins in the background of a medieval painting you will know that they symbolize the demise of paganism and when you see a painting of a man being shot by arrows, you will know it is the martyr Saint Sebastian and a painting or statue of a woman with an owl perched on or near her depicts the Roman goddess Minerva (Greek Athena).