Humans communicate via symbols. This is what language is at the most basic level.
Consider how we express ourselves through aspects of our physicality and cultural.
In many ways these attributes are or become symbolic.
Artists of all types extend expressive capabilities by being inventive in their use and exploitation of both symbol and interpretation of symbol.
Discussion of the term sign is a topic of semiotics and philosophies of language. It can be defined as a basic unit of meaning, and refers to the concept that something indicates or signifies some meaning.
In the visual realm, we also have signs which contain symbols. These symbols can be simple or complex. Either way, they are meant to communicate specific meanings to a given audience.
For example: Recreational Signs
Part of being culturally literate is knowing how to read signs such as these.
What is a Symbol?
Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.
Here are two websites that have both graphical (image-based) and word-based indexes. You can find almost every sign from Western culture here.
Byzantine painters did not paint sacred icons realistic or lifelike to keep a boundary between the physical and spiritual world.
Original Macintosh icons, 1984
Computers & Technology continue to add to the symbol database. Many symbols such as these have become part of font sets. They are called dingbats.
Check out California graphic designer John Hersey's Dingbats.
Icon from Magnets of Meaning SFMOMA
medicine = link between the snake and rejuvenation (the snake is both poison and cures)
axial pole = suggesting phallic power and the tree of life (means of communication or route for messages between earth and sky)
double spiral = suggesting cosmic energy, duality and the union of opposites
serpents = suggesting the fertilizing forces of the earth and underworld
Jerusalem = official seal 300 - 150 B.C.
Greece = health and mystic harmony, marriage of heaven and earth
Gnostics/Alchemists = the five elements
Christians = the protective five wounds of Christ
Magicians = wore pentacle caps to conjure up supernatural help
Masonic = aspirational symbol, the flaming "star"
Greece = death and rebirth
Gnostics = image of self-sustaining in Nature, endlessly recreating itself, the unity of duality, essential oneness of life, the universal serpent moving through all things
Roman = Saturn the god of time, and Janus the god of the New Year
EyeEgypt = wedjat, or eye of Horus
Hinduism = spiritual perception associated wit the power of Shiva
Buddhism = inner vision
Islam = superhuman clairvoyance
Greek = the evil eye
Christianity = God the Father (single eye), Trinity (eye within a triangle), Satan (displaced eye)
Yin YangUnity in duality, balanced dynamism, Yin (female) moist, dark, passive, soft, pliable and intuitive earth, flowers, lunar animals & birds
Yang (male) dry, bright, active, hard, inflexible and rational sky, mountains, solar animals & birds
LabyrinthA single path or unicursal tool for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation.
The Labyrinth Society
Buddhist = cycle of existence
Native American = sacred number four
China = symbol of the "infinite" number 10,000
Nazi = Aryan racial purity
An example of a historical symbol whose meaning has change through time and context, the NIKE logo was created by Caroline Davidson in 1971.
The SWOOSH represents the wing of the Greek Goddess Nike.
Davidson met Phil Knight (the founder of Nike) while in an accounting class. She received $35 for the first SWOOSH. Although I can not find any documentation, it is my understanding that she receives 5 cents every time the logo is used, and yes has made millions.
There are some scholars who believe that pre-patriarchy, Nike was a goddess who brought ease of childbirth.
What does each of these images communicate about Nike?
Here are two symbols which look very similar, yet have very different effects/interpretations. What do they mean to you?
Peace Symbol (Scroll down to The peace sign to see the history of this symbol and how it was conceptualized.)
Poetry and song lyrics are rich with metaphors.
Visual artists create visual metaphors. These may be much less explicit/obvious than many symbols, but they often are based on cultural metaphors, and thus require the context of the culture to be understood.
Jean Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Eggs, 1756
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Broken Pitcher, 1891
Perhaps you have seen this painting in San Francisco at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Like The Broken Eggs, the metaphor here is about the loss of innocence.
Can you interpret additional possible underlying meanings for this painting?
Bouguereau's paintings are sometimes described as kitsch. What qualities make this image kitschy?
Can you identify any metaphors, old or new, for males in this or another culture?
Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.
The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas such as charity, greed, or envy.
Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.
Allegory, in literature, is a symbolic story that serves as a disguised representation for meanings other than those indicated on the surface. The characters in an allegory often have no individual personality, but are embodiments of moral qualities and other abstractions.
The allegory is closely related to the parable, fable, and metaphor, differing from them largely in intricacy and length.
A great variety of literary forms have been used for allegories.
What does Justice remind you of?
Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830