Ever wondered what symbols are hidden within works of art? Art is full of hidden messages. Animals, objects, and even people can have a deeper meaning in a work of art. Discover what lies just beneath the surface of some of our collection favorites.
This self-guided tour will lead you through the second floor collection galleries. The gallery numbers can be located on the floor in the doorways.
Diana the Huntress
The crescent moon on top of this figure’s head tells us that she is Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, the hunt, and wild animals. Here, her only distinguishing feature is the small moon shape atop her head. Compare this with the Diana in gallery 4.
Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate
Artists have often used books to tell us that the subject of a portrait was literate or learned. Here, The Virgin Mary was said to be reading scripture when the Archangel Gabriel came to her. When 14th century Christian viewers saw her finger pressed to the pages of the book, they would have recognized it as the moment of the annunciation.
Virgin and Child Enthroned with the Archangel Michael and Saints Lawrence, Stephen, and George
Another convention for denoting the Virgin Mary was the Stella Maris, or the star of the sea. You can usually find it in gold on her blue mantle (or cloak). The term Stella Maris came from a mistranslation of a biblical text.
Images of the Buddha vary extensively across different geographic and cultural regions but they usually have certain things in common, like elongated earlobes and a top knot (sort of a stylized bun). They often have significant hand gestures, called mudras. This particular example denotes charity or wish-fulfilling. Mudras are used in depictions of deities in other religions like Hinduism and Jainism, as well. Like Buddhism, these faiths originated in the Indian subcontinent.
When we think of soldiers, we typically picture them with some kind of armor or weaponry. (Check out galleries 4 and 7 for more examples of warrior figures). The inclusion of soldiers in a work of art can represent a larger idea, like warfare, or be a literal depiction. In this case the artist is using plastic army men as a reference to current events around the world. She’s adorned her head with them and relates them to porcupine quills, a defense mechanism that signifies protection in a dangerous world.
Cassone (wedding chest) with Biblical Scenes
Sometimes artists use people to stand in for an idea. When this occurs often enough, we call it allegory. In today’s culture, Lady Liberty embodies the concept of freedom. Popular biblical allegories include faith and hope, both pictured on this wedding chest. Hope’s hands are clasped in prayer and her trademark anchor is at her feet.
This ancient Greek cup features not only an owl but also a stylized olive branch. Both symbols were meant to represent the goddess Athena in celebration of her victory over the sea god Poseidon for the control of Athens. She is the goddess of wisdom, with which many people still associate the owl today.
Four Saints (Anthony Abbot, Roch, Peter and Anthony of Padua)
Christian saints are almost always depicted with some kind of symbol or a distinguishing feature (because there are quite a few of them!). Saint Peter may be one of the best known—he is typically shown holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Take a look at the lesser-known saints in the image and their attributes. This convention is used in religions throughout the world as a way to differentiate important figures.
Portrait of a Woman
The Victorians were extremely interested in symbolism —every flower and gemstone had a specific connotation. Likewise, the way in which a lady held her fan had a language all its own. The placement and manner of holding a fan had various secret meanings ranging from “I wish to get rid of you” to “we are being watched.” Resting a closed fan on the right cheek meant yes, on the left meant no. Holding a fan closed in the left hand, as seen here, indicated “I am engaged.”