Symbolism in Art: More than a Glance

Symbols are all around us.  They cover our flags, our countries, our conversation, and our art.  However, in the business of life, what symbols have we never noticed?  The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck and Saint Jerome in his Study by Albrecht Durer hide symbolism throughout the layers of paint.  Three layers of the concept of symbolism will be unpacked today.  First of all, what is symbolism?  We need to know the definition of symbolism before we peel off the layers of paint to reveal symbolism in these two paintings.  The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck’s symbolism relates to marriage, spirituality, and gender.  Saint Jerome in His Study by Albrecht Durer deals with the classic struggle between good and evil.

What is symbolism?  According to the Merriam Webster dictionary symbolism is “Artistic imitation or invention that is a method of revealing or suggesting immaterial, ideal, or otherwise intangible truth or states.” Symbolism can be objects that represent another concept than they are usually intended. Symbolism can also be the meaningful representation of concepts in art.  Symbolism is the liberty to use an object to show something of significance to the intended audience.

The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck is a well-known picture of the sanctity of marriage, spirituality, and gender roles.  To start, the painting symbolizes fertility.  The fruit on the chest, the figure of Saint Margaret on the bedpost, and certainly the bed all show the emphasis on fertility.  Secondly, the painting represents spirituality.  The single lit candle is a symbol of God’s all-seeing eye.  The small dog symbolizes the fidelity of faith.  Finally, the Arnolfini Wedding represents the couple’s gender roles.  The man stands next to the window demonstrating that he is connected to the outside public world and his job.  The woman stands next to the bed showing that she is connected to a private, childbearing role.  A whisk broom links domesticity to the female child-bearing role.  The Arnolfini Wedding symbolizes marriage, spirituality, and gender roles.


The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck


In 1514, Albrecht Durer engraved Saint Jerome in his Study on a copper plate.  The painting has a few contrasts and pictures of symbolism.  The adorable little dog symbolizes loyalty.  This dog was often included in Durer’s work’s and in his tales along with the lion.  Additionally, a cardinal’s hat symbolizes the historical reference to Jerome’s papal appointment.  Finally, a lion, who is a legendary companion of the saint, sleeps in the foreground. The lion is guarding the chamber by imposing his presence.  The ongoing threat of annihilation and blink of human existence is signified by the hourglass on the rear wall and the skull on the windowsill.  Saint Jerome’s total absorption in his divine task and the small crucifix placed at the corner of his desk lessens the overwhelming effect of oblivion.  Saint Jerome in his study symbolizes loyalty, life, and death.


Saint Jerome in His Study by Albrecht Durer


The Arnolfini Wedding and Saint Jerome in his Study include many layers of symbolism.  First, we discussed the meaning of symbolism.  Then we looked at The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck.  Finally, we discussed life and death in Saint Jerome in His Study by Albrecht Durer.  In all these paintings it took more than one glance to uncover the artist’s meaning.

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