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The Hidden Symbolism of Insects in Western Painting

Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding insects. 

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 suffering that awaited heretics 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 Insects.

Most prominently featured Insects in Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting

Cicada - symbol of prayer, sanctuary and hope

Caterpillar - symbolize the life cycle, regeneration, rebirth

Fly - symbol of rot, wasting away, decay, death, melancholia

A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavor with the  king or corruption and dereliction of duty.

A fly hovering over a maiden or noblewoman suggests shamelessness or a woman given to lustful actions.

Wasp - indicates the presence of evil; of the devil, Satan's henchmen are close at hand, fallen angel, the apocalypse

Bee - symbol of martyrdom (the bee sacrifices his own life to save the hive)
A bee crawling on a piece of rotting fruit symbolizes corruption of the body or the onset of disease and death. Often depicted to remind the onlooker of their own mortality.

Dragonfly -symbol of free will

Ladybug - symbol of healing, restoration and divinity

Spider - when a web is placed near a person in a painting it symbolizes the person as one who plots destruction.

A spider web is symbolic of monarchy or church intrigue.

A spider shown scudding out of a web indicates a devilish activities are afoot.

A spider on an apple represents Satans hand in the temptation of Eve and the Fall of Man into sin filled wantonness.

A spider perched on a cup symbolizes matrimonial discord or infidelity. 

A spider sitting on a pillow may represent self-gratification and debauchery.

Beetle - symbol of salvation, immortality

Butterfly - symbolize the life cycle, regeneration, resurrection

Ant - symbol of destruction, homicide, defeat.

Maggot is a  symbol of deterioration, mortality, decadent lifestyle, Satan, Armageddon

 Firefly - represents renewal, youth, hope, new beginnings, young love


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