The History of Art And The Curious Lives of Famous Painters



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

The Hidden  Symbolism  of Sin in Western painting

A leering monkey, a playful finch, a scheming snake, a clever crow, a robin, an osprey—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 visual language. In a culture of restricted literacy symbolic imagery was vital in keeping sinners on the path to heaven. The middle ages were marked by brutality and negativity. Plague decimated entire villages, territorial armies went on rampages, looting and massacring, cruelty to the children and the animals was almost routine. Medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch's use of Christian symbolism in his fantastical paintings seemed disturbing, shocking and sometimes even sacrilegious.  Narrative paintings, with their layer upon layer of vivid symbolism, provided instruction to the uneducated peasants who craved moral guidance. According to religious scholar, A.E.J. Rawlinson, "The Christian ideal is not abstinence, but temperance. A Christian will be temperate, for example, in sleep, food, alcohol, and tobacco. Intemperance means slavery to a habit, the loss of spiritual self- mastery, whereby the whole character is enervated, and efficiency, both physical and moral, is impaired. “All things are lawful,” as S. Paul says, but a Christian is not to allow himself to be brought "under the power of any.” He is meant to live hard and to live clean."  Paintings throughout Western history have been used as guides in illuminating the divine mysteries of Gods Holy Word.

Byzantine, Gothic and Early Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding sin.

Symbolic Representations of Sin in Art

The ape symbolizes a lustful soul filled with sinful thoughts.

Mussel and clam shells – symbolical of  infidelity and lustful thoughts.

Grapes signify lewdness and lustful thoughts.

Beer symbolizes lustful ways, sexual folly, drunkenness, gluttony,  and stupidity.

The Crow is a symbol of  adultery and or wicked thoughts when shown next to married couple, sometimes perched near the bed chamber or nesting on a small pillow in the background. The Crow also signifies the devils henchmen are close at hand when portrayed next to a holy figure.  If the Crow is carrying a silver coin, silver ring or sliver medal it symbolizes Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve apostles and betrayer of Christ.

An Osprey on the wing signified the devils henchmen are close at hand.  A perched Osprey symbolizes Satan's vigilance in the hunt for backsliders and the easily corrupted.

snake - symbolizes Satan; the presence of evil, fall of man

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

The  Serpent

Good Shepherd




Adam and Eve



Mythological Creatures


Virgin Mary


The Anchor

The Apostles



The Cross

Architectural Elements



The Saints









The Four Evangelists

Household Object

Clothing and Accessories

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. Email to


Popular Questions About Art History

What is a allegorical painting?

How did Raphael die?

What is the meaning of a hovering white dove in painting?

What is the difference between Italian Renaissance art and Northern Renaissance art?

What was the impact of the iconoclast on European art?

How did the Black Death impact European art history? 

What was the influence of Classical humanism on the Renaissance?

How did the Inquisition impact European art history?

What is the symbolism of the color gold?

What was the influence of the Medici Academy on Renaissance painters? 

How did the Bonfire of the Vanities impact 
Italian Renaissance"

What is Sfumato?

Who were the greatest painters of the Renaissance?


Search for Artists by Century
Important Painters Born in the 13th Century
Important Painters Born in the 14th Century
Important Painters Born in the 15th Century
Important Painters Born in the 16th Century
Important Painters Born in the 17th Century
Important Painters Born in the 18th Century
Important Painters Born in the 19th Century


Require more facts and information about The iconographical interpretation of Symbols in Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance Painting? Poke around every nook and cranny of the known universe for information this subject. Search Here 2017

If you like this page and wish to share it, you are welcome to link to it, with our thanks. 

copyright 20003 -