The History of Art And The Curious Lives of Famous Painters


Signs and Symbols in Biblically Themed painting

The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Christian themed Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting

An open book, a bowel of strawberries, a sleeping dog, a key in a lock, a mirror, a raven—all are charmingly decorative to the average viewer. For painters of the Gothic,Early Renaissance and High Renaissance eras, symbols were part of a rich visuallanguage.  In a culture of restricted literacy, symbolic imagery was crucial in keeping sinners on the path to heaven.  Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layer of vivid symbolism, provided instruction to the uneducated peasants who craved scriptural guidance. Paintings throughout Western history have been used as guides in illuminating the divine mysteries of Gods Holy Word. 



Most importantly featured  symbols and their meaning:

Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance Art are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism.  Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layers of symbolism, provided  instruction to the uneducated commoners who hungered for biblical knowledge.   Paintings were used as guides in revealing the divine mysteries of the Christian faith.  Eminent art historian and aurthor, Clive Bell explains "The earliest Christian paintings in the catacombs are purely classical. If the early Christians felt anything new they could not express it. But before the second century was out Coptic craftsmen had begun to weave into dead Roman designs something vital. The academic patterns are queerly distorted and flattened out into forms of a certain significance, as we can feel for ourselves if we go to the textile room at South Kensington. Certainly, these second century Coptic textiles are more like works of art than anything that had been produced in the Roman Empire for more than four hundred years. Egyptian paintings of the third century bear less positive witness to the fumblings of a new spirit. But at the beginning of the fourth century Diocletian built his palace at Spalato, where we have all learned to see classicism and the new spirit from the East fighting it out side by side; and, if we may trust Strzygowski, from the end of that century dates the beautiful church of Kodja-Kalessi in Isauria. The century in which the East finally dominated the West (350-450) is a period of incubation. It is a time of disconcerting activity that precedes the unmistakable launch of art upon the Christian slope. "

Symbolism and iconography are central to the reading of works of art within the Western Christian tradition.  The creative use of symbols  adds a certain glory and holiness to Biblically inspired painting, speaking as it does of a hidden world and a mystical faith.

Many early Christians were regarded by both the common people and the Romans as being dangerous radicals. The excessively puritanical Christian lifestyle was in direct conflict with the decadent pagan world.  Christianity, because of its monotheistic faith, refused to offer the expected sacrifices and veneration to other heathen gods. Many Christian customs were misunderstood,  such as  the sacramental rite (wine symbolizing drinking the blood and bread - symbolizing eating the flesh) of Christ and were alleged to be an act of cannibalism. This brought down upon the believers the wrath and persecution of vengeful Romans. During this age of intolerance Christian art made use of symbols as a way conveying  their beliefs and as  reminders of the spiritual world.

Key Descriptive Words  and Phrases associated with the Renaissance Movement  rebirth, rediscovery of the classical world,  publication of Della Pittura, a book about the laws of mathematical perspective for artists,  sfumato, chiaroscuro, Savonarola, spiritually significant,  illuminated manuscript idealized biblical themes, scriptorium, illuminator,  Age of Discovery, axonometric drawing, curiosity about the natural world,  realistic use of colours and light Bonfire of the Vanities, Old Testament stories, ethereal and foggy backgrounds, Gospel parables, The Blackdeath, romanticized landscapes,  Christian symbolism.


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Major Painters of the Italian High Renaissance

Andrea del Sarto
Mariotto Albertinelli
Fra Bartolommeo
Jacopo Bassano
Giovanni Bellini 
Domenico Brusasorci
Giulio Campi
Domenico Di Michelino
Lorenzo Costa
Dosso Dossi
Francesco Francia
Ridolfo Ghirlandaio
Leonardo da Vinci
Lorenzo Lotto
Bernardino Luini
Michelangelo Buonarroti
Baldassare Peruzzi
Piero di Cosimo
Jacob Tintoretto
Marcantonio Raimondi