It’s simple to reduce the significance of symbols in tradition. Artwork tends to give attention to existential symbolism, leap-frogging over the methods by which we interpret symbols continuously, within the type of letters, roadway indicators, toilet doorways, and airplane security playing cards. This reminder is the jumping-off level for The Hidden Language of Symbols (Thames & Hudson, 2022) by Matthew Wilson, a deep dive into the visible symbolism of high quality artwork, tracing its trajectory all through the ages.
The densely illustrated guide is split into 4 classes, chronicling the hidden language of energy, religion, uncertainty, and hope, respectively. The primary, energy, provides a cross-section of symbolic horses, from Donatello’s “Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata” (1447–53) to Lenora Carrington’s “Self-Portrait” (1937–38), in addition to figuring out falcons because the worldwide language of authority, and elevating the vital query: Are dragons good or evil? (It’s difficult.)
The subsequent, religion, examines the triumph of the palm department, the purity of the lily versus the hidden depths of the lotus, the “mystical, multi-dimensional” rabbit, and explains why your soul is a butterfly. It additionally releases the hovering prospects of doves, and raises the query you’ve at all times puzzled, however by no means needed to ask: Why do Jesus, Buddha, Mitha, and Vishnu all have haloes? (Seems, it has extra to do with globalization than their inherent indication of holiness!) Tracing the egg-as-origin symbols finds examples from a Phonecian vessel dated to 625–600 BCE by way of Salvador Dali’s well-known “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (1937) — discuss an origin story!
Over in uncertainty, cat lovers are warned to keep away from the chapter on cats, and everyone seems to be exhorted to by no means belief a fox. It’s a piece stuffed with black mirrors, skulls, and scythes, and even a meditation on the corruption of a logo, the traditional swastika. However it isn’t the one image whose that means has been twisted in modern use — apparently the idea of the reliable or “smart outdated owl” flies within the face of its historic use as a logo for ignorance, misfortune, and evil. And don’t even get me began on snakes! (It’s, once more, difficult.)
Lastly, hope, is stuffed with fountains, unicorns, the secretly superpowerful peacock, reliable canines, and extraordinary parrots. Is a fish the best image of hope? Is the carnation a flower of sorrow or pleasure? Why does an orchid signify the proper man? (As a result of they’re so arduous to search out in nature?) Is there any finish to the symbolism of the ouroboros? (Actually, no.) Let’s revel within the friendliness of sunflowers, from “Flowers in an Decorative Vase” (1670–75) by Maria Oosterwijick, to van Gogh’s authoritative meditation on the topic, to a Mao Zedong propaganda poster from the Sixties, which symbolizes subservient loyalty in Mao’s China.
These are only a choice from the bountiful image buffet showcased within the guide. Whereas the works highlighted are already lovely on a floor stage, they solely acquire impression as one learns, by way of Wilson’s humorous and interesting writing, the right way to decipher the messages beneath.