Art Term of the Month: Symbolism - A Thousand Words


"The Annunciation" by Arthur Hacker, 1892

They say one picture is worth a thousand words. But how exactly do artists share (and put their own spin on) complex stories without using any words? They rely on a set of images with meanings attached to them beyond simple illustration; in other words, they rely on symbols! These symbols can either be highly personal to the artists themselves or they can draw upon common visual traditions. Religious art in particular uses symbols to communicate religious themes, stories, and values.

For example, “The Annunciation” by Arthur Hacker tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she first learns that she is going to give birth to Christ. Hacker uses symbols that Christian artists have used for centuries as shortcuts to represent this story. The lily held by the angel represents Mary's purity and beauty - Hacker underscores this connection by making the lily slender and tall, like Mary’s figure. Next to Mary’s feet sits a water jug, which symbolizes her role as a vessel for Christ. Mary’s pale white outfit also symbolizes her purity, while the angel’s blue robe symbolizes heaven and royalty.

Symbols are a narrative language; if you know the words, you can read some beautiful stories!

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