The History of Art And The Curious Lives of Famous Painters


Search:: Artists Alphabetically   Artists by Country   Artists by Century   Artists by Movement

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 illiterate peasants. The divine artworks served as a constant reminder of the heavenly rewards that awaited honest and righous peeople, Alterntivley they also served as  warning of the hellish tortures that awaited backsliders and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law.

Saint Peter holding the keys to heaven. Jesus gave a important sovereignty to Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."Mattew 16:19
Crossed keys represent Peter's confession and our Lord's reward to him of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

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/pomegranates or a single
apple this is representative of the fall of man. The artist is referencing the apple in Genesis.

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 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 - 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.

Key worn around the neck - represents lost love, unrequited love and death of a lover

Old bearded man holding a key - represents Peter the Apostle and the key symbolizes the Key to the Kingdom of heaven.

Key on a pillow symbolizes marital faith.

Figure holding a keySaint Peter is often depicted holding a key or keys signifies holy, divine, sacred personage; represents the sanctified authority of the papacy and the Church's power to admit people into heaven.

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


Require more facts and information about Spiritual Meaning of keys in Biblically Themed paintings? Poke around every nook and cranny of the known universe for information this subject. Search Here

If you feel you have worthwhile information you would like to contribute we would love to hear from you. We collect essential biographical information and artist quotes from folks all over the globe and appreciate your participation. When submitting please, if possible, site the source and provide English translation.  Please submit your comment to the editor, via e-mail and if possible site the source. Thank you! If you like this page and wish to share it, you are welcome to link to it, with our thanks.

copyright 2017 -


art  movements

top 50 painters


100 greatest paintings

artist biographies