Tuesday 16 August 2011

Signs, Symbols, and Meanings in Art (No.1)

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period it was uncommon for the ordinary man to be able to read and write. However, many could understand and read the signs and symbols in the paintings and frescoes.  They knew the attributions of the Saints, and the symbolic meaning of fruit and flowers.  Many people today know that St. Peter's symbol is an inverted cross or the keys to Heaven; St. Andrew carries an X shaped cross; St. Catherine stands next to the spiked wheel on which she was martyred; St. Christopher carries the infant Jesus on his shoulders, but do you know the symbol of St. Sebastian?
St. Sebastian with the arrows of martyrdom by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi 
Did you know that in Art there is a hierarchy of angels? and do you know your Seraphim from your Archangels?  There are three hierarchies and within those there are nine orders of angels.
  1. The first hierarchy: Seraphim surround the throne of God and are often red in colour; Cherubim know and worship God, and are normally depicted as babies' heads which are surrounded by four wings, in either blue or gold, and sometimes pink. Thrones, wearing judges' robes, support his seat and represent divine justice which they confer on the second hierarchy.
  2. The second hierarchy consists of Dominions, Virtues and Powers who govern the stars and the elements and light up the third hierarchy: Dominions are depicted with crowns and sceptres; Virtues have white lilies or red roses, themselves symbols of the Passion of Christ; and Powers are militant figures often seen fighting ubiquitous devils.
  3. The third hierarchy, consisting of Princedoms, Archangels and Angels, maintains contact between Heaven and Earth.
A seraphim appears to St. Francis - attributed to Giotto

click to enlarge
The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini at the National Gallery, London.  This painting shows the three hierarchies and the nine orders of angels, each with their different characteristics.

Signs, Symbols and Meanings in Art (No.2) and (No.3)            

All images via Wikipedia


  1. Yay! Look forward to more of this: its a detailed subject but so fascinating. Love the Botticini, must go and see that...

  2. Kate next time round will probably be fruit and flowers in Art along with their meanings.

  3. I had no idea archangels were third hierarchy! Thanks for the information - now I know the red angels around one of my favorite Mantegna Madonnas are probably seraphim!

  4. Yes Mark, for most people looking at a Renaissance painting they just see an angel without knowing the actual significance of the image.


❖PLEASE NOTE❖ Comments made by those who hide their identity will be deleted

“You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you - you have to go to them sometimes”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh