What drives human nature? Some of us, perhaps the most rational, would answer the spirit of survival. I say it’s the search for explanations to the mysteries of life itself. And since these mysteries often escape any rational explanation, we are forced to use the language of symbols to represent them.
I am Clelia and today we are discovering 22 symbols of nature in works of art that only true enthusiasts notice. Often in our language, we use the words sign and symbol interchangeably when in reality there is a difference. A sign represents or indicates something directly, like a flag representing a country. On the contrary, a symbol goes beyond its literal meaning, as it represents something deeper and universal. For example, a rose can be a symbol of love and passion, which goes beyond its literal meaning as a simple flower.
Over time, these symbols have evolved and enriched with meaning. However, the fundamental themes that have always fascinated humanity remain constant over the centuries: fertility, birth, life, and death. For simplicity, I have divided the symbols for us today into two categories: let’s start with the animals.
The Butterfly in Art
The first is the butterfly, which represents rebirth, transformation, and freedom. It is a Greek symbol of the soul and its personification, Psyche. In Christian allegory, particularly in still life, a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and a butterfly symbolize life, death, and resurrection.
The Dog in Art
A completely different meaning instead has man’s best friend: the dog. A vigilant guardian, a symbol of loyalty and companion for numerous deities. In Greek mythology, Cerberus with three heads guards the entrance to Hades. In Christian art, however, black and white dogs are symbols of the Dominican order.
The Bull in Art
Then of course, the bull. The most representative symbol of the masculine principle in nature, namely strength and power. It was long associated with the gods of the sun and the sky, the ultimate source of fertility. For example, in the myth of Europa, abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull.
The Dove in Art
The best-known animal in art is the dove. With an olive branch, it is an ancient Christian symbol representing personified peace. It has been associated with the Holy Spirit and often appears in the Annunciation, the Baptism of Christ, and the representation of the Trinity. In some examples of early Christian art, even the twelve apostles are depicted as doves.
The Peacock in Art
Even the peacock is often represented in different cultures. According to Greek mythology, the ‘eyes’ in the peacock’s tail were added by Era, who stole them from the body of the giant Argus. In Christian art, the peacock is often used as a symbol of the Resurrection and immortality, as it was believed that its flesh never decomposed.
The Snake in Art
And the peacock was also said in ancient times to be the best antidote against snake venom. Another of the most represented animals in art. Very revered since prehistoric times and a religious symbol with multiple meanings. For us Westerners, it is associated with two representations: the Greek one of Medusa with the head of snakes, and then of course the Christian one of the serpent that instigates Eve to take the apple and therefore symbol of sin.
The Eagle in Art
Another Christian symbol with Greek origins is the eagle. In Christian art, the eagle symbolizes the Ascension and is one of the beasts of the apocalypse, but it also represents John the Evangelist. In Renaissance allegory, it is an attribute of Sight, one of the five senses, and of Pride, one of the seven deadly sins.
The Lion in Artworks
Another evangelist is often represented by the symbol of an animal, the Lion. According to medieval bestiaries, the lion symbolizes the Resurrection. The lion, usually winged, is one of the apocalyptic beasts, representing the evangelist Mark. It is present in the coat of arms and ancient currency of Venice, where it is believed to have been buried.
The Phoenix in Artworks
There are also imaginary animals, and the phoenix is one of them. A mythical bird, imagined as an animal with splendid plumage. The name has been freely used for a variety of fabulous creatures from Egypt to China to the present day. It is said that it was Pliny who, upon seeing a golden pheasant for the first time, invented the name phoenix.
The Horse in Artworks
Often depicted in various works, the horse is instead a symbol of death. It is used as a symbol of the death and passage of the soul of the deceased. It is present in many myths and religious rites of different civilizations, especially as a representation of the sun since the winged horse in Greek myths pulled the chariot of the god Apollo.
The Owl in Artworks
Another animal associated with death and misfortune is the owl. It is believed that in the religions of Mesopotamia, it was associated with Lilith, who was also considered the first wife of Adam. Later on, it is not certain how the association between this bird and the Greek goddess Athena originated, but during the Renaissance, the bird was used as a personified attribute of Night and Sleep.
The Pelican in Artworks
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the pelican. The red tip of its beak is the probable source of the legend according to which it pierces its own body to feed its young with its blood. It is therefore adopted as a symbol of Christ who shed his blood on the cross. The motif is commonly found in the decoration of churches, in allegorical still lifes, and is an attribute of personified charity.
The Lamb in Artworks
And it is not the only symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. In fact, in many representations, we also have the lamb, the sacrificial victim par excellence. The Hebrew Passover lamb is adopted by the early church as a symbol of Christ who sacrificed himself to save humanity.
The Owl in Artworks
When it comes to animals associated with death and misfortune, there is also the owl. It is believed to have been associated with Lilith in Mesopotamian religions, who was also considered Adam’s first wife. Later, it is unclear how the association between this bird and the Greek goddess Athena came to be, but during the Renaissance, the bird was used as a personified attribute of Night and Sleep.
The Pelican in Artworks
On the other hand, there is the pelican. The red tip of its beak is the probable source of the legend that it pierces its own body to feed its young with its blood. It is then adopted as a symbol of Christ who shed his blood on the cross. The motif is commonly present in the decoration of churches, allegorical still life, and is an attribute of personified charity.
The Lamb in Artworks
And it is not the only symbol of the sacrifice of Christ. In fact, we also have the lamb in many representations. The sacrificial victim par excellence. The Hebrew Passover lamb is adopted by the early church as a symbol of Christ who sacrificed himself to save humanity.
The Fish in Artworks
Christ is represented through so many symbols, especially at the beginning of Christianity when it was necessary to do so for worship purposes. The fish, for example, is one of the elements of the sacramental meal in various ancient cults, probably also paleo-Christian. Three fish symbolize the Trinity. In general, it is a symbol of fertility and procreation originally associated with the Mother Goddess. And in Renaissance allegory, flowers, fish, and stars decorate the dress of philosophy.
The Sun and the Moon in Artworks
But returning to the subject of stars, the next category is precisely the elements of nature. The most common natural symbols in artworks are two: the sun and the moon. The former is well-known. Worshiped since ancient times all over the world in ancient religions and beliefs as the supreme and all-seeing god of light, a source of fertility and life; furthermore, for its setting and rising, it is a symbol of death and resurrection. The sun is generally associated with the male deity and has ties to the moon. The Mother Goddess and related female deities are always associated with her, as lunar phases coincide with the cycle of the earth and women who were once believed to control it.
The Tree in Artworks
And when it comes to nature and deities, the tree is also worshipped by many ancient peoples as the abode of a god or, in fact, as the god itself; also a symbol of the universe and a source of fertility, knowledge, and eternal life. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. But as a Christian symbol, the tree is linked to the cross through a medieval legend that the wood of the Tree of Knowledge is used for the cross of Christ, thus redeeming Original Sin.
The Fire in Artworks
Another very common element is fire. It is considered a symbol of rebirth because it purifies. The origins are ancient, and it has been used since the beginning as a tool for lighting, hunting, and a source of heat. It can be a symbol of ardor as an attribute of St. Anthony of Padua in our art, but also have opposite meanings. In Renaissance allegories, for example, the flames of passion envelop lust, one of the seven deadly sins.
Stars in works of art
Like fire, stars are also a symbol of origins. The family of Greco-Roman astral deities has Babylonian origins and, despite the opposition of the first Christian writers, the idea of a link between gods and stars spread even in Christian religion and art. Jesus and Mary have been associated with stars, as well as some saints like Dominic and Thomas Aquinas. In Renaissance allegory, the Muse of Astronomy Urania wears a crown of stars and stars also adorn the dress of Philosophy together with flowers and fish.
Vines in works of art
But natural elements in art are not only astral, but also plants and fruits. Among the most common is the vine. Grape clusters belong to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, but not only. In Christian art, they symbolize the Eucharistic wine, therefore the blood of Christ. The child Jesus, in the arms of the Virgin Mary, often holds grapes in representations. In non-religious works, instead, it is the personification of autumn, due to the harvests between September and October.
Pomegranate in works of art
But the vine is not the only fruit in the hands of the child Jesus in our works of art. We often find the pomegranate as well. It was already a symbol in Greece of the fertility goddess Demeter or Ceres for the Romans due to the abundance of its seeds. But with Christian representations, it becomes a symbol of resurrection and immortality, but not everyone knows that it is also the Christian symbol of chastity.
Apple in works of art
And finally, the last fruit and symbol for today but not for importance is the apple. Perhaps we all know this one: in Christian art, it is the fruit of the tree of knowledge, picked by Eve and a symbol of the expulsion from Paradise. Sometimes, it is held by the child Jesus to allude to redemption from that original sin. But its history goes far back in time and comes from farther away: for example, the apple of discord was thrown into the banquet of the gods and used by Paris for his choice of the most beautiful woman in the world. Finally, the golden apples of the Hesperides symbolize immortality and are an attribute of Hercules.
If you, like me, are fascinated by the symbols and meanings of art, I suggest you take a look at my post on the theory of colors. And if you don’t want to miss the next videos, subscribe to the YouTube channel and activate the notification bell. Thank you and see you next time!