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The Meaning of a Key or Keys in Western Painting


The Spiritual Significance and Meaning of Keys in Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting

The key symbol doesn't have a single simple meaning. The meaning changes based upon the era, country and even the painter. From the earliest period of Christian history the church fathers realized the value of religious images in helping to keep sinners on the road to salvation. William H. Hunt wrote "When language was not transcendental enough to complete the meaning of a revelation, symbols were relied upon for heavenly teaching, and familiar images, chosen from the known, were made to mirror the unknown spiritual truth." The Church commissioned artisans and craftspeople to create religious imagery for churches and state building. These sacred images acted as moral instruction and spiritual comfort to uneducated peasants. The divine artworks served as a constant reminder of the hellish tortures that awaited backsliders and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law.


Key on a pillow - symbolizes marital faith.

Figure holding a key - signifies holy, divine, sacred personage; represents the sanctified authority of the papacy and the Church's power to admit people into heaven.

Crossed keys represent Peter's confession and our Lord's reward to him of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Key in a lock- symbolizes acceptance of Jesus Christ and eternal salvation, immortality. "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." -- Matthew 16:19

Key near a bowl of fruit or cup symbolizes corruption of the soul or a tendency towards lustful thoughts. If the key is depicted next to a bowl of apples or a single apple this is representative of the fall of man. The artist is referencing the apple in Genesis.

An old bearded man holding a key - represents Peter the Apostle and the key symbolizes the Key to the Kingdom (heaven).

Key lying beside a lock - symbol of free will

Key lying on the floor - symbol of those who have surrendered to the fatal sin of greed and corruption.

A bird with a key in it's beak - has several meaning but most often symbolizes salvation.

Key peeking out beneath a book - symbol of a sinner or one who has fallen in league with the devil. A doer of depraved and reckless acts.


The Meaning of Sacred Symbols in Paintings. Most prominently featured symbols and their meaning:

The Serpent

Good Shepherd

Adam and Eve




Virgin Mary


The Anchor

The Apostles



The Cross

Architectural Elements


The Saints









Household Object


The monasteries owned vast libraries and engaged in the copying of manuscripts. Manuscript paintings were generally styled after classical paintings of late antiquity.


Byzantine mosaics are bedecked with gold leaf and iridescent glass tiles, radiating a shimmering, heavenly light. The effect of the composition together with the precious materials, lift the holy figures into a divine spiritual place. The figures themselves are symmetrical, repetitive, and little emotion or individualism is expressed in their calm faces.

Byzantine sovereigns adored gold in a sumptuous way, and on a grand scale. They had no use for simple, plain jewelry or furnishings. The royal thrones were made of solid gold; even their battle gear was festooned with jewels and gilded with gold and silver. Households of the upper class possessed a immense silver table, and solid silver tableware.

Throughout the life of the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Orthodox Church also played an important social role. Sacred images, commissioned by the church acted as moral instruction to the illiterate peasants who clamored for enlightenment of the holy scriptures.





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