Symbols and their meanings.

Before the growth of "salons" and private exhibitions in the 18th century, most paintings and other works of art had no fixed titles. Artists used a range of symbols to help viewers identify the subject of a picture. Saints, mythological characters, historical or religious events all had their own particular sets of associated artefacts. For example the four evangelists are always depicted as winged creatures each with his own specific attribute;

Matthew is shown as a man

Mark as a lion

Luke as an ox

John as an eagle

All four together, often arranged at the extremities of a cross, symbolise the New Testament of the Bible.

A lady standing next to a wooden wheel is probably Saint Catherine.

If you see a man dressed in long robes holding his decapitated head under his arm, this is not Frankenstein's monster but probably Saint Denis. A headless woman carrying her own head is probably Saint Valery (associated with St Martial of Limoges).

Characters from Greek mythology all have their own recognisable attributes:

A man with a club and wearing a lion skin - Hercules

A man riding in a chariot drawn by four horses -Apollo as the sun-god

An athletic woman with a bow and arrow, accompanied by dogs or a stag could be the Goddess Diana.

We all recognise Cupid with his bow and arrow.

Other symbols may be more general, such as colour and spatial organisation of elements.

Here is a list of some symbols used in Western art essentially up until the end of the 18th century.


Ape/Monkey Satirises man’s pretentiousness and folly
Apple Christian art; fruit of the Tree of Knowledge / symbol of the Fall of Man and his Redemption
Anchor Christian art; hope
Bear Gluttony
Bird held by the infant Christ Human soul
Boar Lust
Bridle Temperance
Bubbles Brevity of life
Butterfly Christian art; the resurrected soul
Cherries Christian art; fruit of paradise - symbolising heaven. A reward for virtue
Clock Temperance; time passing
Crane Vigilance
Crow Hope
Dandelion Christian art; grief
Dog Portraits; fidelity. Envy - sense of smell – melancholy – licentiousness
Dove Christian art; symbol of the Holy Ghost.
Mythological art; attrubute of Venus i.e. love. Symbol of peace.
Egg Creation / rebirth
Goat Lust
Grape Christian art; eucharistic wine - the blood of Christ
Hare/Rabbit Lust
Hedgehog Sense of touch; gluttony
Ivy Eternal life
Lighted candle Brevity of life
Lily Christian art; purity - the Virgin Mary
Olive branch Peace
Palm branch Christian art; held by martyrs. Victory – fame
Peach with one leaf attached Truth
Peacock Christian art; immortality. Pride
Playing cards Idleness
Pomegranate Christian art: resurrection - the authority of the Church - chastity
Skull Death
Violet Humility
Walled garden Christian art; immaculate conception.