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The Hidden Symbolic Meaning of Books in Western Art

From the earliest period of Christian history the clergy realized the value of images in keeping sinners on the road to heaven.  According author and art historian, Carleton Noyes "The incident of the single canvas, which by its illuminating revealment first discloses to the observer the true significance of pictures, is typical of the whole scope of art. The mission of art is to reveal. It is the prophet's message to his fellow men, the apocalypse of the seer. The artist is he to whom is vouchsafed a special apprehension of beauty. He has the eye to see, the temperament to feel, the imagination to interpret; it is by virtue of these capacities, this high, transfiguring vision, that he is an artist; and his skill of hand, his equipment with the means of expression, is incidental to the great fact that he has somewhat to express that the common man has not. To his work, the manifestation of his spirit in material form, his perception made sensible, is accorded the name of art."

From the of time of the Roman persecution Christians used signs and symbols to secretly identify each other.  The Church commissioned sacred images that acted as moral instruction to illiterate serfs who clamored for spiritual enlightenment of the holy scriptures.  The religious images, carvings and stone work served as a constant reminder of the hellish tortures that awaited backsliders and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law. 
Byzantine, Gothic, Northern Renaissance and  Italian Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical Christian symbolism regarding Books.

Detail image of a painting by Pedro Berruguete

Open book - signifies education, knowledge and wisdom. Apostles and Saints are often shown with open books. The Virgin Mary is frequently shown holding an open book, symbolic of her submission to Gods Holy Law.

Detail image of a painting by Benozzo Gozzoli

The open heart-shaped book - Saint Augustine (354-430) was regularly depicted sitting at his desk with an open heart-shaped book, symbolic of his passion for truth and reverence for the Word of God, the ultimate source of light and truth.

Closed book - symbolizes incomplete knowledge. May also indicate the presence of heretics and rejection of Gods Holy Law in favor of heretical doctrines. A closed book also indicates the Kingdome of Heaven is closed to non-believers.

Book with a cross on the cover  - symbolizes the word of God, Gods Devine Law, Church Law and Papal authority. The Apostles are frequently depicted holding a book representing the New Testament.

Open book with pages torn out, strewn about- symbolizes rejection of knowledge, reason, honor and morality, or a rejection of faith and church authority.

Book with coins on top, may symbolize wealth and greed over knowledge and philanthropy.

Old man with a beard holding a book  or scroll represents St. Peter, St. Matthew or St. John

Balding man with a beard holding a book represents St. Paul.

Disheveled, scraggly haired old man holding a scroll or book represents St. Andrew.

Good Shepherd


Adam and Eve



Mythological Creatures



Virgin Mary



The Anchor

The Apostles



Sun and Moon



The Cross

Architectural Elements



The Saints









Household Object

Clothing and Accessories

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ref - The Enjoyment of Art by Carleton Noyes