Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art
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Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art

James Hall

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eBook - ePub

Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art

James Hall

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About This Book

The understanding and enjoyment of a work of art depends as much on the story it depicts as on the artist's execution of it. But what were once biblical or classical commonplaces are not so readily recognizable today. This book relates in a succinct and readable way the themes, sacred and secular, on which the repertoire of Western art is based. Combined here in a single volume are religious, classical, and historical themes, figures of moral allegory, and characters from romantic poetry that appeared throughout paintings and sculpture in Western art before and after the Renaissance. More than just a dictionary, this text places these subjects in their narrative, historical, or mythological context and uses extensive cross-referencing to enhance and clarify the meanings of these themes for the reader.

The definitive work by which others are compared, this volume has become an indispensable handbook for students and general appreciators alike. This wholly redesigned second edition includes a new insert of images chosen by the author, as well as a new preface and index to highlight the ideas, beliefs, and social and religious customs that form the background of much of this subject matter.

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A and Ω, or ω. Alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. They are the symbol of God as the beginning and the end of all things, and associated in art with the First and Second Persons of the Trinity, from the Book of Revelation (22:13 and elsewhere), ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’. The letters are found in conjunction with the CHI-RHO MONOGRAM in early Christian art. In Renaissance painting and later they are generally seen on the pages of an open book held in the hand of GOD THE FATHER. The more usual form of omega is ω, sometimes drawn to resemble the Roman letter W. A hand-sign forming a W stands for omega.
Aaron. Elder brother of Moses whom he accompanies in several scenes (see MOSES, 5, 10, 11, 12). One of the tribe of Levi that had special sacerdotal functions, Aaron was the high priest of the Israelites in the wilderness, and the prototype of the ancient Jewish priesthood which was traditionally descended from his sons. The vestments are described in detail in Exodus (28), though Aaron is by no means always depicted wearing them. They are sometimes characterized by the golden bells that fringe the robe—their sound was supposed to drive off evil spirits—and by the headdress which is either a turban or, as a prefiguration of the Christian priest-hood, a papal TIARA. Aaron holds a CENSER and a flowering WAND, or rod.
1. The punishment of Korah (Num. 16:1–35). Probably a conflation of more than one account of revolt against the leadership, which tells how Korah, a Levite, with Dathan and Abiram, contested Aaron’s right to the high-priesthood. Challenged by Moses to offer incense to the Lord—a rite reserved to the priest—they and their followers found themselves swallowed up by the earth as soon as they attempted to do so. They are depicted beside an altar, censers flying, as the ground opens beneath their feet. Moses raises his wand; Aaron swings a censer.
2. The flowering rod (Num. 17:1–11). To settle the issue of leadership among the twelve tribes the head of each brought a staff which was laid in the tabernacle. Next day it was found that the staff of Aaron, representing the tribe of Levi, had sprouted, flowered and produced ripe almonds. This example of the unfertilized bearing of fruit, together with the verbal similarity of the Latin virgo with virga, a rod, led to the adoption in the Middle Ages of the almond as a symbol of the Virgin’s purity. (See also MANDORLA.) Jerome’s account of the choosing of JOSEPH from among the suitors of the Virgin is an adaptation of the story of Aaron’s rod. A flowering staff is hence an attribute of both Aaron and Joseph.
Abacus, attribute of Arithmetic, one of the SEVEN LIBERAL ARTS.
Abduction. Traditionally the fate of helpless maidens, but also sometimes of youths, not always protesting. Maiden: abducted by greybeard, in air, BOREAS; by black-bearded king on chariot (into flaming cavern), RAPE OF PROSERPINE; by white bull into sea, RAPE OF EUROPA; by young man, towards harbour, ships, HELEN OF TROY. Two maidens: seized by two warriors on horseback, CASTOR AND POLLUX. Youth: borne aloft by eagle, GANYMEDE; borne aloft by bishop, from banquet, NICHOLAS OF MYRA (5). Warrior: sleeping, garlanded, laid in chariot by women, RINALDO AND ARMIDA (2).
Abel, see CAIN AND A.
Abigail, see DAVID (5).
Abraham. The first of the great Hebrew patriarchs of the Old Testament. Called by God, he left Ur of the Chaldees with his wife Sarah and nephew Lot to go to Canaan. He is white-haired with a flowing beard. His attribute is the knife with which he meant to sacrifice Isaac, his son.
1. The meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18–24). After their sojourn in Egypt to escape the famine Abraham and Lot came north again ‘rich in cattle’. They separated, Abraham returning to Canaan, Lot settling in Sodom. When raiders attacked the Cities of the Plain, Lot was captured and his possessions seized. The news was brought to Abraham who armed some three hundred men and set off in pursuit. He attacked by night and defeated the foe, releasing Lot and recovering the stolen goods. Abraham returned in triumph. At Salem (Jerusalem) he was received by Melchizedek, the king and high priest, who brought out bread and wine and blessed Abraham. The latter in return paid Melchizedek a tithe (one-tenth) of his spoils of victory. Melchizedek wears priestly robes and a crown or mitre. He carries the eucharistic chalice and bread, since the episode was regarded in the Middle Ages as a prefiguration of the Last Supper.
2. The three angels (Gen. 18:1–19). While Abraham ‘sat at the tent door in the middle of the day’ three men appeared before him. Realizing that they were angels he bowed down before them, fetched water and washed their feet; then with the traditional hospitality of the nomad he brought them food. The angels prophesied that a son would be born to Abraham’s wife Sarah. But Sarah laughed at the idea because by now they were both ‘old and well striken in age’. However she afterwards bore Isaac so the prophecy was fulfilled. The three visitors are usually represented as angels, with wings and sometimes with haloes. Abraham kneels before them or washes their feet or fetches food. His dwelling, contrary to the text, is more often a humble building than a tent. The angels were regarded as a symbol of the Trinity and their prophecy was made a prefiguration of the Annunciation.
3. The banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21:9–21). Ishmael was Abraham’s first son and his mother was Hagar, the Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah. When Isaac, Sarah’s son, was born Ishmael mocked his younger brother so that Sarah asked Abraham to banish him, together with his mother. Abraham provided them with bread and a bottle of water and sent them off into the desert of Beersheba. When the water was spent Hagar put Ishmael under a bush to die and then sat some way off, weeping. But an angel appeared, by tradition the archangel Michael, and disclosed a well of water near by, so they were both saved. There are two scenes, the banishment, and the appearance of the angel, both common in 17th cent. Italian and Dutch painting.
4. The sacrifice of Isaac; the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1–19). To test Abraham’s faith, God commanded him to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. They went to the place of sacrifice, Abraham on his ass and Isaac carrying the wood for the altar fire. Abraham bound Isaac, laid him on the altar and drew his knife. At that moment an angel appeared and stayed Abraham’s hand, saying, ‘Now I know that you are a God-fearing man. You have not withheld from me your son’. Abraham raised his eyes and saw a ram caught in a thicket which he sacrificed instead. This subject occupied a central place in the system of medieval typology—the drawing of parallels between Old and New Testament themes. Abraham’s intended sacrifice was seen as a type of the Crucifixion—God’s sacrifice of Christ. Isaac carrying the wood prefigured Christ carrying the Cross, the ram became Christ crucified, the thorns in the thicket were the crown of thorns, and so on. Artists commonly portray Abraham with his knife poised; sometimes his other hand covers Isaac’s eyes. Isaac kneels or lies, usually naked, on a sort of low altar on which there are faggots of wood. The angel is in the act of staying Abraham’s hand and at the same time points towards the ram. According to Moslem tradition Abraham’s sacrifice took place on the site of the Mosque of Omar (the ‘Dome of the Rock’) at Jerusalem.
Abraham’s bosom, heaven: see LAST JUDGEMENT (5); DIVES AND LAZARUS.
Absalom, see DAVID (8).
Abundance. Ample supplies of food, the basis of man’s well-being, flowed from peace, justice and good government. Hence the allegorical figure of Abundance is often associated with other such virtues, celebrating the end of a war, sometimes on public buildings, or on a sculptured tomb in allusion to the benefits bestowed by the dead man in his lifetime. The figure of Abundance is found particularly in Italian art. Her principal attribute is the CORNUCOPIA. She may, like CHARITY, be be accompanied by several children. She may hold a sheaf of CORN in her hand since her classical prototype was Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. A RUDDER, which came to be associated with the idea of government, dates from ancient Rome and derives from the annual celebration of the grain harvest which mostly came to the city by boat. The rudder, with terrestrial GLOBE and cornucopia together suggest that the world-wide rule of Rome brought about plenty (‘Triumph of Caesar’, Mantegna, Hampton Court).
Acedia, see SLOTH.
Achelous, see HERCULES (22).
Achilles. Legendary Greek hero, the central character of the Iliad which tells of his deeds in the Trojan war. The following are non-Homeric themes concerning his upbringing and death. See TROJAN WAR for the others.
1. Thetis dips Achilles in the Styx (Hyginus 107; Statius, Achilleid 1:269). Achilles was the son of Thetis, a sea-nymph. Knowing the destiny in store for her son, she tried to protect him by dipping him at birth in the waters of the river Styx. This made his body invulnerable except for the heel by which she held him. Thetis is shown standing at the water’s edge holding the infant upside down by the foot. Its head is submerged. In the background the souls of the dead—wraithlike figures—may be seen thronging the river bank, while Charon ferries a boat-load across the water. Cerberus, the watchdog, lies near by, his three heads showing varying degrees of wakefulness.
2. The education of Achilles by Chiron (Fasti 5:385–6; Achilleid 2:381–452). In his youth Achilles was handed over to Chiron, a wise and learned CENTAUR who taught him many arts. The Centaur is depicted playing the lyre to his pupil, or they duel, swim side by side, practise gymnastics and so on. The various activities may be combined in one picture. A related theme shows Achilles as an infant being handed over by his mother into the arms of Chiron.
3. Achilles and the daughters of Lycomedes (Hyginus 96; Met. 13:162–70; Philostratus the Younger, Imag. 1). By far the commonest Achillean theme, yet an un-heroic one. Like that of HERCULES (17) and Omphale it concerns a hero dressed in woman’s clothes, which perhaps explains its popularity. Knowing her son was destined to die if he went to fight in the Trojan war, his mother disguised him as a woman and entrusted him to King Lycomedes, in whose palace on the isle of Scyros he lived among the king’s daughters. Ulysses and other Greek chieftains were sent to fetch Achilles. They cunningly laid a heap of gifts before the girls—jewellery, clothes and other finery, but among them a sword, spear and shield. When a trumpet was sounded Achilles instinctively snatched up the weapons and thus betrayed his identity. A group of female figures is seen crowding round caskets of gifts. One of them lovingly fingers a sword, or springs up brandishing it to the others’ astonishment. Ulysses and other warriors may be present.
4. Death of Achilles (Dares Phrygius, Excidium Troiae 34; Dictys Cretensis 4:10–13). Achilles was offered the hand of Polyxena, daughter of Priam, king of Troy, if in return he agreed to raise the siege of the city. But this was a plot to kill him. At Polyxena’s request he came to make a sacrifice to Apollo. As he knelt at the altar he was shot by her brother, Paris. The arrow was guided by Apollo to Achilles’ one vulnerable spot, his heel. Achilles is seen kneeling before an altar, his foot pierced by an arrow. Or he may be supported in the arms of another of Polyxena’s brothers. She stands by with an attendant. Paris is in the doorway, bow in hand, Apollo at his elbow. ...

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Citation styles for Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art
APA 6 Citation
Hall, J. (2018). Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1597703/dictionary-of-subjects-and-symbols-in-art-pdf (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Hall, James. (2018) 2018. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1597703/dictionary-of-subjects-and-symbols-in-art-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Hall, J. (2018) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1597703/dictionary-of-subjects-and-symbols-in-art-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.