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Christian Art

Renaissance: Signs & Symbols

The Renaissance period was dominated by geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Giorgione. They were "thought to be set apart from ordinary mortals by the divine inspiration guiding their efforts, and worthy of being called 'divine,' 'immortal,' and 'creative.' " This period was short due to the life span of the few masters, since no one else could imitate their style.

Much of the Bible uses symbolism in prophesy and parables. Symbolism is also used heavily in Christian art, especially during the Renaissance. Some of the Renaissance symbolism comes from the Bible.

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men." - Matthew 5:13

When early Christians were persecuted and met in secret, they could use their symbols as a form of unity and keep their meaning safe from the pagans who didn't understand them. Thus, religious symbols were a source of power.


The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck (1434)
 

Madonna of the Goldfinch, Giovanni Battista (1760)
 

Saint George Killing the Dragon, Bernardo Martorell (1435)
 

Maiden and the Unicorn, Domenichino (1602)

animalmeanings
apesin, cunning, lust
basilisk(rooster/snake) Satan
bearcruelty, evil, Persia
bear cubsnew converts
beeactivity, order, work, sweetness, unity, virgin Mary
birdssoul
blackbirdtemptation of the flesh
butterflyresurrection
cameltemperance, royalty, dignity, John the Baptist
catlaziness, lust
centaur(man/horse) savage passions, adultery, heretic, good versus evil
cranevigilance, loyalty,
deerpiety, solitude, purity
dogwatchfulness, fidelity, faithful
dolphinresurrection, salvation, Christ
donkeyhumility, nativity
dovepurity, peace, Holy Spirit, grace
dragonSatan
eagleresurrection, Christ, courage, faith, meditation, generosity
egghope, resurrection
falconevil thought (wild), Gentile convert (domestic)
fishChrist, baptism, Peter
flysin, bearer of evil, pestilence
foxcunning, guile, Satan
frogheretics, worldly
goatthose condemned
goldfinchthe Passion of Christ
gooseprovidence, vigilance
grasshopperconversion to Christianity
griffin(eagle/lion) Jesus, those who persecute Christians
hogsensuality, gluttony
horselust
lambChrist, sinner
larkhumility of priesthood
leopardsin, cruelty, Satan
lionstrength, majesty, courage, resurrection, Christ, John Mark, Satan, watchfulness
owlSatan, trickery, solitude, wisdom, Christ
oxIsrael, patience, strength, Christ, Luke
partridgethe church, truth, deceit, theft, Satan
peacockimmortality, church
pelicancrucifixion, blood
phoenixresurrection, crucifixion, faith, constancy
rabbitto hope in Christ, lust
ramChrist, victorious, strength
ratevil
ravenSatan, solitude
roosterwatchfulness, vigilance, Peter, the Passion
scorpionevil, Judas
shellpilgrimage
snailsinner, laziness
sparrowlowly
spidermiser, Satan, malice
stoatpurity
storkchastity, piety, the Annunciation
swallowthe Incarnation
unicornpurity, feminine chastity, virgin Mary, Jesus
whaleSatan
woodpeckerSatan, heresy


The Virgin and Child with the Baptist and an Angel, Paolo Morando (1488)
 

Boy with a Basket of Fruit, Caravaggio (1580)
 

Woman with a Pink, Rembrandt (1660)

plantsmeanings
almonddivine favor
appleevil, Christ
aspencross
brambleburning bush, virgin Mary
bulrushmultitude of faithful
carnationpure love
cedarChrist, beauty, majesty
cherrygood works, delights of blessed
chestnutchastity
clovertrinity
cocklewickedness in the church
columbineHoly Spirit
cypressdeath
daisyinnocence
dandelionthe Passion
elmdignity of life
fernsolitary humility
figlust
firpatience
fruitfruits of the spirit
gourdresurrection
grainhumanity of Christ
grapesblood of Christ
hollycrown of thorns
hyacinthprudence, peace of mind
irisMary's sorrow at the cross
ivydeath, immortality
laurelchastity, triumph, eternity
lemonmarital fidelity
lilypurity, virgin Mary
myrtleGentile converts
oakstrong faith, endurance
olivepeace
orangepurity, chastity, generosity
palmvictory
peachsilence, salvation
pearlove of Christ
plumfidelity, independence
pomegranatechurch
poppysleep, fertility, extravagance, indifference, death
reedthe Passion
rosered - martyrdom, white - purity
strawberryrighteousness
thistlesorrow, sin
thorngrief, trials, sin, martyrdom
treelife, death
vinerelationship between God and man
violethumility
wheatearth's bounty
willowgospel


Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci (1506)

elements meanings
ashespenitence, death, short life
cloudsunseen God
darknessspiritual darkness
dawnblood of Christ, resurrection
firemartyrdom, religious zeal, Holy Spirit, torments of Hell
fountainvirgin Mary
gardenImmaculate Conception
goldpure light, wealth, heaven
harboreternal life
honeywork of God
lightChrist
oilgrace
pearlsalvation
rainbowunion, reconciliation
rocksJesus, Peter
saltstrength, superiority, protection
smokevanity, short life, wrath of God
stardivine guidance
stonesfirmness, Stephen
sunJesus
mooncrucifixion
watercleansing, purifying, innocence
wellbaptism, life
wingsdivine mission


The School of Athens, Raphael Sanzio (1510)

 

Pieta, Michelangelo (1500)
 

Agony in the Garden, Bellini (1459)
 

The Kiss of Judas, Giotto di Bondone (1306)

objectsmeanings
anchorhope, steadfastness
armorchivalry, faith
arrowdedicated to God, plague
aureole(glowing light) divinity
axedestruction, John the Baptist, Joseph
bannervictory
beehiveeloquence
bookOT, NT, scholar, author
bowwar, power
breadlife
clubbetrayal of Jesus, James the Less
dicethe Passion
chainsthe Passion
gatedeath, entrance to Heaven, judgment, virginity
girdlechastity
glasspurity
globepower, God
halodivinity, patrons
hammerthe Passion
harpDavid, Psalms
ink penMark, Matthew
keyPeter
ladderthe Passion
lampwisdom, piety
lettersA & W (alpha & omega) - Jesus, T - God, INRI - Jesus on cross
mirrorvirgin Mary
moneythe Passion, Matthew
nailsthe Passion
paintingLuke
planeJoseph
ringeternity
robethe Passion
ropeJudas
sawJoseph, Simon the Zealot
scalesequality, justice
shipchurch
swordPaul
torchbetrayal
towelpurity, the Passion
vasethe Annunciation, body separated from the soul
veilmodesty, purity
wheeldivine power
winepresswrath of God


Madonna with Saints, Bellini (1505)
 

Madonna with Saints, Titian (1526)

colorsmeanings
blackdeath, witchcraft, mourning, sickness
black & whitepurity
blueheaven, heavenly love, truth
brownspiritual death, renounce the world
graymourning, humility, Lent
greentriumph of spring, life, John the Baptist
purpleroyalty, God, sorrow
redblood, love, hate, emotions, Romans, martyrs
violetlove, truth, suffering
whiteinnocence, purity, holiness
yellowdivinity, Peter, jealousy, treason, Judas, disease

shapesmeanings
triangletrinity
squareearth
circleheaven, eternity
pentagram5 wounds of Jesus on the cross

numbers meanings
1unity
2nature of Christ, human and divine
3completion, trinity, tomb
4gospels
5wounds of Jesus
6creation, divine power, majesty, wisdom, love, justice
7love, grace, Holy Spirit, perfection
8resurrection
9angels
1010 Commandments
12apostles, church
13faithfulness, betrayal
40trial
100plentitude
1000eternity

Dig Deeper

The Renaissance painter used symbols to embed meaning into their paintings. God has put His own messages into everything around us if we only look and study.

20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.

26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. - 1 Corinthians 1:20-27

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