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.

Gallery 5

Speak No

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.


Gallery 7

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.


Gallery 10

Red-Figure Kotyle

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.


Gallery 13

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.


Gallery 16

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.”