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We tend to believe that art did not become ‘difficult to understand’ until the 20th century but art has always been full of hidden meanings, symbols and references with ancient and surprising origins. Some that were comprehensible to a wide audience in the middle ages or the renaissance are obscure to us. Others would have been understood only by an educated elite or were very personal to a patron. ‘The Secret Language of Art’ decodes some of these symbols and the great wealth of ideas they represent.

Notes for a Study Day given at Gerrards Cross Summer School  August 2 2011

The Greeks

From the beginning the Greeks had a clear idea of shared identity and of homeland - the colonies were quite independent and had a number of different kinds of government but they shared a language and an idea of ‘nation’. They were the first people to produce written histories of themselves (Homer the Odyssey and the Illiad) and create a comprehensive written account of the creation of the world and of the gods and of men. The poem the Theogony of Hesiod, written in the 7th century BC describes the beginning of all things, the triumph of law and civilization over chaos and the ‘family tree’ of the gods.  Hesiod drew together the various gods of the Greek colonies into one coherent pantheon are transformed to become deities of those things which mattered to the Greeks. The images of the gods are images of perfected human beings, there are no hybrid gods like those of Egypt, the centaurs, the panisci, the tritons and so on are not gods, they represent ‘forces of nature’.

In the beginning there was Chaos, then appeared Gaea the Earth mother and Eros ‘the love which softens hearts’ who would preside over the formation of beings and things. From Chaos came Night who gave birth to Hemera - the day.  Gaea gave birth to Uranus - the sky crowned with stars and the high mountains and the sterile sea,  Uranus - the sky and Gaea - the earth united and formed the first race - the Titans, the Cyclopes and monsters, the elemental  forces of nature.

Uranus looked at his children with horror and shut them up in the depth of the earth.  Gaea with her son Cronus (time) castrated him and cast his bleeding genitals into the sea.  The blood gave birth to the Furies and to giants - the sperm falling on the water gave birth to Aphrodite. Cronus then liberated his siblings and the work of creation continued. The rivers, the oceans, fates, passions and moods were all born from the unions of the Titans. Cronus married his sister Rhea who gave him three daughters, Hestia, Demeter and Hera and three sons; Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. Cronus afraid of being supplanted swallowed each of his children as they were born.  Rhea, determined to save her last-born Zeus, gave birth to him in secret in Crete where he was raised by the daughters of Melisseus (bee - they fed him honey) and protected by the Curetes - for a wet nurse he had the she-goat Amaltheia who became a constellation when she died (Capricorn)  To the nymphs he gave one of her horns which had the magical property of filling itself with whatever food or drink was required - the cornucopia.  When he came to manhood Zeus made his father regurgitate the children he had swallowed and then banished him to the ends of the earth. Zeus took Olympia as his new home and began to breed the race of Gods.  

Zeus was originally a god of the sky and most of his shrines are on mountain tops, his attributes, the eagle and the thunderbolt are aerial.  The oak leaves refer to his sanctuary at Dodona  where there was an oak tree which gave prophesies. His first wife was Wisdom but he was warned that their children would be more powerful than he so he swallowed her and her unborn child taking wisdom into himself.  Next he married Law and with her had the Seasons, who regulated the natural world,  Legislation and Justice, who regulated the civilized world and The Fates. to whom all things were subordinate.  With Mnemosyne he had 9 daughters who were the Muses.

In the Theogony Zeus and Hera were siblings but Zeus desired her and tried to trick her by appearing to her as a cuckoo,  Hera took the exhausted bird to her breast whereupon Zeus resumed his natural form but Hera gave in only when he promised to marry her. She presides over all phases of female existence as the child goddess, the wife goddess and the widow goddess. She is shown as a young and regally beautiful woman wearing a high crown, a veil and a long tunic.  She carries a sceptre surmounted by a cuckoo and a pomegranate, symbol of conjugal love and fruitfulness, Her sacred bird is the peacock, it’s tail symbolizes the vault of heaven.

Poseidon was a very ancient deity, his name derives from the same root as the Latin potens; - master. In the Theogony he is the brother of Zeus and his cult was officially of less importance but his ancient role as supreme god was not lost. He was given a new role, his thunderbolt was replaced by a trident and he was given the title Zeus Elalios (marine) and  powers which extended over the whole physical universe. 

Athena was originally a storm and lightning goddess first worshipped as particular stones believed to have fallen from heaven (palladia)  (In the creation story she overcomes the giant Pallas and took his skin for a shield)  Her oldest manifestations were as a warrior, the protector of towns and acropoli.  Later she assumed the role of patron of industries and of architecture and sculpture. According to her myth she was the unborn child devoured by Zeus along with Wisdom her mother, shortly afterwards he was struck down with a headache, Prometheus struck him with an axe and from the wound sprang Athena fully armed.  She created the olive tree and became the essence of wisdom, hence her emblem of the owl. The bringing of her cult to Athens was explained by Hesiod. Hephaestus wanted her but she, sworn to virginity defended herself and he ‘scattered his seed on the earth’ which shortly gave birth to a child Erichthonius whom Athena rescued.  He grew up to be king of Athens were he founded a solemn cult dedicated to his foster mother.

 In Hesiod Apollo was the son of Zeus by Leto whom Hera prevented from giving birth by keeping the goddess of childbirth from going to her.  She laboured for nine days and finally - as Homer says ‘Leto clasped a palm tree in her arms, pressed the soft ground with her knees and the earth beneath her smiled and the child leaped into the light’.   Apollo was not the actual sun god, that was Helios. but he was associated with the sun being both benevolent and dangerous He protected flocks, caused the crops to ripen and destroyed those things which threatened them.  He could heal or destroy and was the god of divination with his main shrine at Delphi where according to legend he overcame the serpent Python.  He made music and designed cities and is always shown as a beautiful youth, nude except in his persona as a musician in which case he wears a long tunic. He may have a bow and quiver - the arrows are the sun’s rays; a shepherd’s crook or a lyre. Snakes are sacred to him as are laurels (Daphne who called on Gaea for help).  The Muses were in the retinue of Apollo and Asclepius the god of health was his son (Hygieia his grand daughter)

Artemis was originally she an agricultural deity from Arcadia and a goddess of the chase. In myth she is Apollo’s sister and thus a divinity of light - he of the sun and she of the moon.  Like him she can heal or destroy but she has an especial connection with women, as the moon goddess she presides over childbirth.  She is generally depicted as a young girl wearing a short tunic with a torch in her hand or crowned with the moon or the stars and accompanied by a deer or a dog.

Hermes is one of the oldest deities and was originally a god of the twilight and the wind (movement and change). His name comes from an old Greek word meaning movement, he was a god of travelers and his image was places at crossroads. In Hesiod he was described as the son of Zeus by Maia and he assumed new roles - he was the messenger of the gods and a psychopompus responsible for conducting the souls of the dead to the underworld or bringing them back.  He evolved into the god of commerce, games of chance and of eloquence and diplomacy - Logios. Because he was a traveler and a message bearer he was also honoured by athletes.  He is depicted as a young man often wearing a round, winged hat and winged sandals.  his staff - the caduceus around which serpents (wisdom) are twined was given to him by his half brother Apollo in return for the first lyre. Hermes was the father of Pan.

Aphrodite was originally from Phoenicia , her cult spread to Cythera and then to Cyprus through Greece and into Sicily.  Originally she was a fertility goddess but became the goddess of love in all its aspects.  Aphrodite Urania - the Celestial Aphrodite was the goddess of pure and ideal love.  Aphrodite Genetrix protected marriage.  Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Porne was the goddess of lust and the patroness of prostitutes. She is extremely complex since she is a life and joy bringer but also a destroyer.  Her son was Hermaphroditus who was beloved of the nymph Salmacis - he wanted nothing to do with her and she begged the gods to make them inseparable - accordingly their two bodies became one, neither male nor female.  Myth now regards Eros as the companion of Aphrodite personified as the young winged god whose’ arrows caused such chaos. By the Roman era their relationship as mother and son was firmly established.  The Graces were companions of Aphrodite.  They gave joy to the hearts of humans and their names were Aglaia - the Brilliant, Euphrosyne - She who rejoices in the heart; and Thalia - she who brought flowers.  

 Ares was straightforwardly a god of war - rage and carnage, the son of Zeus and Hera and Zeus’ least favourite child.   He was the lover of Aphrodite.  Hephaestus was a god of terrestrial fire of which volcanoes were the most terrifying. He is the divine blacksmith who taught men the mechanical arts.  Depicted as a robust smith with a short chiton and conical bonnet who holds a hammer and tongs.  He was lame from birth and was married to Aphrodite.

Demeter was the cultivated and fertile soil, Her daughter was Kore who was stolen from her by Hades and brought back from the underworld yearly by her mother. Demeter was a goddess of considerable power, with her are associated the mysteries of birth, death and the afterlife. 

Dio Nysus - the God of Nysa was a composite of many other gods, most of them foreign in origin.  He was the son of Zeus, carried in his father’s thigh after Zeus rescued him from the dead body of his mother Semele (twice born - Dithyrambos)  After his second birth he was raised by the nymphs of Nysa and taught by the old Silenus.  He learned to make wine, drank too much and became mad.  After recovering he journeyed the world teaching viniculture.  He came back immeasurably more powerful having learned as much as he taught.  Early images  of Dionysus show him as a rustic god, later he becomes a youth with curly hair and dressed in the skins of panthers.  Invested with new power  he journeyed to the underworld in search of his mother whom he placed among the immortals.  A part of his story which became important was that he had been torn apart by the Titans who were envious of him.  Athene rescued his heart and Zeus recreated him - Plutarch describes him as ‘The God who was destroyed, who disappears, who relinquishes life and then is born again’.  

As the Greeks were colonizing into the Mediterranean a group of farming communities was formed by Indo European peoples on the seven hills in Latium close to the mouth of the Tiber.  By the 7th century BC these separate communities were beginning to unite under a series of kings and by 616 BC Rome was a small city.   The main god of these peoples - Jupiter was worshipped on nearby mount Albanus - at this stage he was a god of the sky and the weather. In 616 Rome was annexed by the Etruscans and ruled by the Tarquin kings for almost a century.  The Etruscans had already developed industries in their lands; they were known as skilled metalworkers and potters and had well established trade contracts with Phoenician Carthage in Africa and with the Southern Greeks and they were good wine makers. Eventually in 507 the inhabitants of Rome overthrew the last of the Tarquin kings and established a republic with a democratic form of government.  They then began the process of conquest and federation through Italy, the beginnings of what would become the greatest empire of the ancient world.


There was no ‘state religion’ in republican Rome, the centre of Latin religious observation was the home - rites were performed by the paterfamilias; obedience to him - pietas (root piety) was an important virtue. In the household lived Lares and Penates who shared the meals of the family and in return guarded the store room.  They were also benevolent spirits of whole communities.  Each person had his or her own genius - the spirit responsible for giving a child what it needed in life - its skills, talents and so on. At the doorway (in Latin - janus) lived a spirit who took care of the comings and goings of the family.  Since it was his job to look in two directions at once he was shown with two faces.  Eventually he was elevated and as Janus the god he was responsible for all beginnings - he was carved onto city gates and gave his name to the first month of the year. The hearth was also sacred - in Greek the word is hestia, the name given to the guardian spirit of the fire; in Greece Hestia was a very minor deity - in Latin she was called Vesta and was far more important - the fire was the centre of the home and the tending of the fire was traditionally the duty of those daughters who lived at home.  These were eventually formalized as the Vestal Virgins who were chosen from the patrician families.  The circular shape of the Temples of Vesta may be a reference to the fact that the ancient houses of the Roman peoples were also circular.  

Until Rome began to overtake Greek lands, Greek ideas and their deities and mythology had no influence among the Latins. The Roman respect for Greek culture began with the conquest of the Greek lands in Sicily and Asia Minor. It was not simply the visual sophistication of the Greek communities which impressed Rome, it was also the fact that the Greeks had a very clear idea of identity, had literature, written histories of themselves and a highly evolved pantheon of gods appropriate to a complex society.  The Latin language began to change; it had been an essentially functional language, perfectly good for the writing of documents, laws and so on but unsuited to literature. The first Roman histories were produced after the Punic wars, for the first time Rome was aping the Greeks by giving itself divine origins. By the time of Augustus, Virgil’s Aenead would trace that ancestry back to both the gods and the heroes of Troy. The story told that Aeneas a son of Venus and the mortal Anchises came to Latium and installed his gods in the Latin Land.  His son, the first king was called Iulus and the Julian clan claimed direct descent from him. The Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia was a princess of this line and when raped by Mars she gave birth to twin sons Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome itself.  Thus the Julians claimed a line which was doubly divine - Venus on one side and Mars on the other.

 Apollo was the first of the Greek gods to arrive in Rome,   and his worship never ceased - it was fostered by Augustus and the library of Apollo was constantly replenished with new works on divination right through to the 5th century AD.  The Early Christian fathers maintained that the coming of Christ had been foretold in the writings of the Sybils - the interpreters of Apollo’s prophesies. Zeus was identified with Jupiter and other gods in the Greek pantheon were adopted, Cronus ‘became’ Saturn. Ares ‘became’ Mars. Hephaestus ‘became’ Vulcan.   Aphrodite; -Venus.  Eros; - Cupid.   Poseidon;-Neptune.  Demeter; - Ceres. Dionysus; - Bacchus.  Hades; - Pluto. Artemis; -Diana. Hermes; - Mercury.  Their various myths were enlarged and embroidered by Roman writers (Ovid).   

Augustus made Rome an ‘official’ empire when he was elected Emperor in 27 BC. From the beginning of his reign he was anxious to promote the legends of the Roman peoples stressing that they had always been destined for greatness and guided by the gods. He introduced some new divinities to the pantheon - Pacis, Peace who was to be reinterpreted in Christian times as Charity and a new goddess Roma. It was not until the time of Gaius (Caligula) in AD 37 that the emperors were intermittently proclaimed as living gods but Augustus did promote the idea of apotheosis - deification after death, ‘divus’ a favour extended to their wives and sometimes their mistresses.  Apotheoses usually show the deified being carried to heaven - here Antoninus who died in AD 161 and his wife Faustina are carried to heaven by the winged spirit of Eternity.  The couple are shown as Jupiter and Juno - an eagle guards their ascent and the figure of Roma is seated on the right.) 

On the whole the Romans were extremely tolerant of foreign religions; they interfered as little as possible in the religious observances of conquered peoples and admitted a great many cults to Rome so long as their practices did not contravene Roman civic law. Isis worship came from Egypt and spread into Italy from the south.  Her cult was practiced first by slaves but swiftly gathered a much wider following.  Caligula installed a temple to her in Rome around AD 39.  Her cult persisted well into the Christian era.  Her last temple was closed by Justinian in the 6th century and turned into a church dedicated to the Virgin.  Isis was a great mother; the queen of this world and the after-life.  Her husband and brother was Osiris the king of all Egypt; (Caligula wanted to marry his sister) when he traveled abroad to spread civilisation his brother Set plotted against him and he was murdered and his body hidden.  Isis found it and while guarding it she miraculously conceived a child - Horus.

From Persia came two important cults, the state religion, Zoroastrianism, named for the 6th century BC teacher Zoroaster, the prophet of the Mazda, the Invincible Sun. A number of the Roman emperors - including Constantine - were devotees of the Invincible Sun.  With Zoroastrianism came the cult of Mithras, widespread in the Roman empire by the 1st century BC  Mitra as he was originally known has his origins in India and Iran and is mentioned 1,400 years BC.  At first he was a god of friendship and contracts but he evolved to become the protector of truth and eventually a god of the first magnitude.  He was brave and wise, the son of the Sun and the keeper of Light - all seeing, all knowing.  He was also the god of priesthood and is frequently depicted wearing a phrygian cap like the priests of Mazda, the Magi. In his capacity as god/priest he sacrificed the bull to ensure the fertility and abundance of the earth and part of his myth is that he too was sacrificed and eternally renewed. Those admitted to his cult had to exert extreme self-discipline and asceticism - in return they might expect the gifts of prophesy and of absolute courage. There were a large number of followers of Mithras among the legions which accounts for part of the success of his cult in the Roman world.


Christian Churches (groups rather than buildings) were already established by the end of the 1st century. In their meeting places, the catacombs and occasionally in rooms set aside in synagogues they established their identity through the use of symbols, not for purposes of secrecy but because Christianity developed from Judaism. The fish, associated with the miracles of Christ, with the ancient association of fish as bearers of the soul and because the Greek word for fish was composed of the first letters of ‘Jesus Christ, of God the Son, Saviour’. The Chi Rho, an ancient symbol for good fortune was adopted because it was a cruciform within a circle. The Dove, a symbol of redemption (ref the dove coming to Noah at the end of the flood) and a symbol for Christ. The anchor representing the Faith. The little ship, the navicella, an ancient symbol dating back to Egypt where ships were believed to transport the souls of the dead to the other world. In Christianity the ship had associations with Christ (Sea of Galilee) and was understood to be the ‘safe vessel’ carrying the faithful through life. (ref the word ‘nave’ describing the part of the church in which the congregation stood)

Narrative images begin to appear in the 2nd century as instructions to supplement oral teaching to the illiterate faithful. These were not ‘holy images’ to be worshipped, their function was didactic. The important acts of Jesus were depicted but there were no devotional images of Him and images tended to emphasize the continuity between the Old and New Testaments (typology - like and like - e.g. The story of Jonah appears as a prophesy of Christ and an example of God’s intervention. The ark appears as an example of divine forgiveness)To be Christian required that one lived as a Christian and followed the example and teachings of Christ. Effectively the Christian communities were communes, the members worshipped together and supported each other, tithing was a common practice, each member giving what they could to the Church coffers so that the group could give support to members in need. As the Faith began to attract wealthier members by the 3rd century some of the Churches became extremely rich. In addition the numbers of literate and educated converts were growing and Christianity was moving from its simple beginnings to something far more structured and organized. A governing and regulating system was in place by the middle of the 3rd century where groups of Churches were brought together under the authority of local bishops - episcopos who had the authority to ordain other orders, the presbyteroi who attended to the spiritual life of the communities and the diocesians who oversaw welfare activities and managed finances. At the same time Christian iconography became more complex; the Church was attracting the literate and scholarly and we begin to find images emphasizing the relationship between Christ and the great sacrificial and saviour gods of the past. Dionysus, Mithras, Osiris et al.

The success and the exclusivity of the Christian communities provoked antagonism in a number of quarters. To the highly educated pagans of the Greek East  Christianity was ‘a religion for babies’ in which faith counted for more than learning. (‘The Christians seem to have arrived at a position of moral superiority without the benefit of any learning’). In social terms the detachment of the Christian communities was often perceived as unpatriotic and by the late 2nd century they were understood to be undermining the state. As sundry Emperors of the 3rd century became increasingly beset by problems the competent organization of Christianity seemed more provocative, Church properties were confiscated and members were required to renounce their faith and pay homage to the Roman gods or face death. Some chose to make the required sacrifice and to pretend to have renounced Christianity, others chose to face death and to share the fate of Peter and Paul and of Christ Himself.  Images of the Holy Martyrs begin to appear in Christian art at this time.

As the Roman Empire began to fall apart in the late 3rd century, the Christian communities grew stronger and gained new converts. Public attitude was changing towards them as they assumed social responsibilities abandoned by the State. After the Persian wars the communities had provided ransom moneys for Christian and non Christian captives, the State was no longer doing this. They had provided care and medical aid during the plague epidemics of the 290s and were caring for numerous widows and orphans. When Diocletian launched the Great Persecution in AD 303 he was far too late to undermine the success of the Christianity.  It was Diocletian’s intention to reinforce a feeling of patriotic unity, naturally Christianity stood apart from this. He forbade all assemblies of Christians and ordered the destruction of Churches and sacred books.  Sacrifice to the gods of the state was ordered, refusal meant certain death and the eastern Empire and Africa produced some 3,000 Christian martyrs. As soon as Diocletian abdicated in 305 the persecutions ceased and his successor Galerius granted freedom of worship to Christians at  Sofia. In 312 Constantine issued the Edict of Mediolanum (Milan) which granted immunity to the Church and began his campaign to rule the Empire and to transform it from paganism to Christianity.

At the universities of Neapolis and Alexandria there were scholars, well versed in the great pagan philosophies and in the texts of Hinduism and Buddhism  who were already attempting to reconcile Christian thought with the great concepts of the past. (Images of Christ the Teacher appear in increasing numbers, A line of divinely inspired teachers who show the way to godhead already existed across the east in the Semitic traditions, the image of the bearded - Syrian - Christ as opposed to the beardless and youthful Roman Christ comes from an aligning of Jesus with the teachers of Eastern tradition.  Its inclusion into Imperial art was probably helped by the fashion for this ‘look’ in the courts of Constantinople but its source is far older.

There were already moves afoot to ‘regularize’ Christianity; - as the Faith spread it had been introduced to peoples of a vast number of different root beliefs and social classes, their perceptions of Christ differed and the Churches in various parts of the Roman world had also developed different teachings and practices. So long as Christianity remained a minority faith such differences were not necessarily important but when Christianity became the Faith of the empire some kind of Orthodoxy was required. The function of the various councils of the Church from the Council of Arelate (Arles) in 314 and Nicaea (Iznik) in 325 was to resolve the differences between the more important of the Christian sects. At the centre of the disputes was the question of the nature of Christ and His relationship with God. Those who had come to Christianity from Judaism or Zoroastrianism held that Jesus was a great prophet - the human Regent of the One God on earth. The priest Arius (250-336) held that Jesus was not God by nature, that His dignity was the gift of God. On the other hand there were those who maintained that Jesus was divine, a god Himself. These Monosophytes (single nature) came mainly from Egypt with its ancient tradition of god kings. In addition there were innumerable smaller sects whose perception of Christ was so radically different that they would eventually be outlawed. 

In an attempt to explain the nature of Christ the Council of Nicaea offered the concept of the Trinity; the one Substance with three natures - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit; in theory it was the Nicene Orthodoxy which eventually became the official view of the empire. Rome and Constantinople were roughly in accord in that they both followed the Nicene Catholic (Universal) Orthodoxy.  Nicaea did not solve the problem of the nature of Christ - was He human or Divine?  If  divine how could He have died? The Council of Chalcedon tried to solve the problem by declaring Christ to be of two natures - wholly human and wholly divine and ‘perfect in both natures’; a proposition accepted by the Orthodoxy but which which eventually saw the splintering away of the Monosophyte churches of Egypt. (The Coptic Christians)

Constantine began his promotion of the Church by instituting measures which favoured Christianity, Imperial funds were sent to subsidize churches in the provinces, at Rome the bishops were given the Lateran Palace and granted their own jurisdiction and began to adopt aspects of court ceremonial.  The Church and State were to be run in double harness, at the Councils of Arles and Nicaea Constantine made it clear that he intended to play a leading part in the subsequent developments of the Faith. It would be the great pillar on which Imperial authority rested and this had a profound effect on the art made for the Church.  It was the divine aspect of Christ which was emphasized, His eternal nature and by extension the eternal nature of His authority transmitted through the Church and the State. Images of Christ Emperor played an important part in the ‘binding’of the people to the Orthodoxy and in revealing to them the profound majesty of Christ. 

The Virgin was venerated in the eastern empire long before her worship came into the west;  the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared her the Theotokus, the bearer of God, divine and thus able to act as an intercessor between Her Son and His subjects. (images drawn from those of Isis and Horus) The Virgin actually inherited a vast number of attributes from the old mother goddesses; she wears stars on her brow or her garments because she was the Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea, a role once belonging to Isis. She was depicted sitting on the lion headed throne which belonged to Cybele. She is also the Orant, the prophetess. In the following centuries the symbols associated with the Virgin become ever more complex and draw from an increasing number of sources.

The Eastern Church

In the first centuries of the Orthodoxy, Christian thought and images were drawn from a vast number of sources.  The books of the New Testament were authorized at Rome in 382, the Book of Revelation was included after some debate and provided some standard images - the symbols of the Evangelists and the Lamb. (Matthew was the man because his gospel begins with the human ancestry of Christ. Mark is the lion because it is a desert creature and Mark’s gospel begins with John in the desert. Luke is the ox, a sacrificial animal because his gospel begins with Zachariah sacrificing at the Temple and John is the eagle because his gospel begins with the heavens). The Lamb was a vexed question; In Revelations the emphasis is on the Lamb as the source of salvation. (Agnus Dei) but the white lamb had been the sacrificial animal in the Jewish world, one was sacrificed daily at the Temple in Jerusalem. The symbol was not entirely approved by the Church and was actually forbidden at the Council of Constantinople in 692 thereafter it died away in the east but remained as an important symbol in the west.

There remained a number of different versions of the Gospels in circulation. These Apocryphal gospels would be a source for Christian iconography until the Reformation. The Descent into Limbo or the Harrowing of Hell where Christ descends into the nether regions to bring out those who came before Him comes from the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Much of the evolving iconography associated with the Virgin Mary and the concept of  Her perpetual Virginity comes from the Protoevangelium of James. 

Through Byzantium came a rich treasury of imaged derived from the East. The peoples of the ancient Near East had always seen their gods as abstract and spiritual beings, the 5th cent. Syrian Christian monk known as Dionysius the Areopagite expressed this attitude when he described the Deity as ‘the divine darkness which is beyond light’ - something unknowable and beyond the reach of human reason. In the East the presence of the god was often evoked not by an image but rather by an absence of image.  The empty throne was a more powerful evocation of the presence of the god than an image of that god.  The Romans actually adopted this before the Christian era with a throne ‘standing in’ for the emperor when he was physically absent.  The church in the East adopted it as a symbol of the second coming, its Greek name is Hetoimasia - the throne made ready. (never fully absorbed into western Christian art).

In the eastern tradition the supreme god had no human form. The Lord Mazda is manifest only as light, the stars are an aspect of him hence their importance in Persian devotions and hence the astrologer priests of Mazda - the Magi. The association of god with light comes from the Eastern and not the Western tradition but became firmly entrenched in western iconography. The divinity of Christ and other Holy persons is indicated by that light. (round halo denotes a dead person, a square or hexagonal a living saint or holy person - triangular halo represents the trinity and usually associated with God the Father). The Mandorla or vesica piscis is the ‘mystical almond’ usually used to surround the Virgin it is an ancient symbol of virginity) The Tree of Life became an important symbol in Christian art, interpreted as a great vine (grapes an allusion to the wine of the Eucharist. Sometimes it grows from the foot of the Cross, sometimes it is represented in a way borrowed from Persia, as a plant growing from life-giving water and nurturing symbols of immortality - lions or peacocks.

The concept of Paradise as a beautiful garden also came from Persia. The idea of the beautiful place where no evil can come is first mentioned by Zoroaster - created by the Lord Mazda who told his prophet ‘Then I created Ghaon, the abode of Sughdra, the most delightful place on earth.  It is sown with roses, there birds with ruby plumage are born’ Mazda intended his garden to be the home of man but it was spoiled by evil which filled it with malice and envy and bad things so he created another to which man can come after he has successfully completed his journey through the spoiled world.  Images of animals and plants were central to Persian and other middle Eastern arts and found their way very swiftly into Byzantine iconography where they were married with references taken from the Old Testament (Eden) and ones originating in the classical tradition.  In fact the whole concept of paradise as a garden - a second Eden comes from the Persian tradition via Byzantium.

While numbers of images were transmitted from East to West, it was only in the East that veneration of Holy images was accepted by the sixth century Church as part of a broader band of permitted veneration. Latria was the worship accorded to the Trinity alone, hyperdulia the veneration accorded to the Virgin and the saints.  The veneration accorded to icons was believed to be transferred to the prototype represented.  The Bishops of Rome saw no problem with the making of images as instructional devices but they were very firm in their instructions to missionaries and established western churches to ensure that images did not become objects of worship. Devotional as opposed to narrative images were not made in the west much before the 12th century except in areas directly under Byzantine control.

The ‘official’ fall of the western Roman empire came in 476. In fact most of the western empire was already occupied by barbarian tribes; with the exception of the Saxons the invading peoples were at least partly Christian, albeit Arian Christian and most of them had also originally taken their lands ‘by the grace of Rome’. Since the Church had taken over much of the business of government in the western empire, the higher clergy were of especial importance. It remained for the Church at Rome to turn the barbarians away from their Arian beliefs and to the Orthodoxy. Clovis the king of the Franks was persuaded to convert at the beginning of the 6th century, the Spanish Visigoths accepted the Orthodoxy in 589 and the Lombards who had invaded northern Italy 100 years later.  

Christianity suffered a precarious existence in Britain under the Saxons, but it survived in the Celtic lands of Ireland and Wales, Ireland which had never been occupied by Rome had nevertheless received missionaries at some point in the 4th century AD perhaps from Gaul. There were a number of tiny monasteries and hermitages under the protection of the Irish lords and from these came a wave of monks to evangelise the north of Britain and found monasteries at Iona, Lindisfarne and elsewhere which eventually served as bases for the founding of further monasteries far to the east in Gaul and Germany.  The conversion of the southern Saxon kingdoms was undertaken by Gregory the Great who in 598 sent a mission headed by St Augustine to Aethelbert the powerful king of Kent who was persuaded to Christianity and the first Episcopal network was established with centres at Canterbury and York. In the seventh century the Celtic foundations of the north were brought into the Catholic Orthodox fold and Saxon England became a great centre of learning and Christian culture.

Across western Christendom it was the Celtic foundations and those of the Benedictines which were centres of learning and teaching where  pagan and Christian texts were preserved and copied. Texts as well as styles and materials were coming into the west from Byzantium and were mixed with the very different traditions of the barbarian peoples. Although the Goths, Visigoths and Franks had lived settled lives along the Roman frontiers their artistic languages were still those of nomadic peoples.  There was no tradition of monumental architecture or large-scale figurative sculpture or depictions of the human figure but the barbarian peoples had their own languages of pattern and symbols that began to combine with classical forms. The narrative tradition also made an impact on the kinds of images made in the west where Biblical events were presented as stories in illustrated texts and in relief sculpture.

When it became apparent in 753 that Rome was in danger from the Lombards and Islam which had taken most of Spain was making forays across the Pyrenees into southern Gaul, Pope Stephen traveled North to secure an alliance with the Franks. After a number of successful  campaigns against the Lombards and the Moors, Pepin and his son Charles were declared ‘patricians of the Romans’.  Charles; Carolus Magnus -  Charlemagne pledged his armies to the protection of Christendom and was created the first of the Holy Roman Emperors in St Peter’s on Christmas day 800. He established his seat of power at Aachen (Aix la Chapelle) which he called the ‘Roma Secunda’. He took his role as emperor very seriously and understood that his own lands lacked the great architectural and scholarly traditions of Byzantium so it was to Byzantium that Charlemagne looked for his models. He knew that he must have scholars and organizers about him so he collected artists, craftsmen and teachers from Ireland, Italy, Lombardy, Spain and the Anglo Saxon world to form a circle at Aachen. The mastermind behind Charlemagne’s programmes was Alcuin from the cathedral school at York. The York curriculum formed the basis for the teaching programmes set in place by Alcuin who also set about ordering and cataloguing the various works held in the Frankish monasteries and regularizing the reproduction of texts and the ways in which the texts were written. Despite the ongoing influence from Byzantium, western Christian art was already different to that of the Eastern Church, it was flexible, it varied from place to place and it drew on a much wider range of sources than the Byzantine Church.

The incorporation of new images into the West

By the 9th century the depiction of sacred themes and characters and their placing within Byzantine churches was becoming standardized. The cupola and apse ceilings were the zone of heaven containing images of God, Christ and the Virgin. The other upper surfaces showed the events from the gospels which formed the 12 Feasts of the Church and the lower walls were the terrestrial world with the most important human characters at the east end and the lesser saints and martyrs at the west. By contrast the west was already incorporating a vast number of new images and symbols drawn from many sources. Monasteries were in possession of texts from the Graeco-Roman world, copies of speculative works written by more modern scholars and works coming from the Arab centres of learning in Spain at Cordoba and Seville.  These included astronomical and astrological texts, travelers tales, bestiaries as well as commentaries on the works of ancient philosophers. Images derived from these kinds of works found their way into the decorations of churches. The medieval world view was one of unity - a belief that everything demonstrated the great plan of God from the ordering of the universe to the least inhabitants of that universe. The signs of the zodiac, ultimately derived from classical sources represent God’s ordering of the universe, the ancient world had understood the earth to be a flat disc floating in Oceanus and the heavens to be a series of 8 concentric spheres, one for each of the seven planets including the moon and the sun and the 8th sphere which was the firmament in which the belt of the zodiac was fixed. The Labours of the months were usually depicted with the zodiac emphasizing man’s relationship to the ordering of the heavens and his role in the world since Adam.

Monsters and hybrid figures were included because they too were part of God’s plan.  Traveler’s tales had existed in written form since the 5th century BC when Ctesias the physician to the king of Persia had recorded stories he had heard from travelers in the east.  Pliny borrowed from him for his ‘Natural History’ and innumerable other writers borrowed from Pliny. As far as the medieval world knew such monsters might well exist in the far-flung corners of the earth and must also be the creation of God. In the 6th century Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote in his encyclopedia, the Etymologiae that such creatures were not in defiance of nature, they were ‘contrary only to the familiar in nature’. The 2nd century AD writer known as Physiologus was the ‘father’ of innumerable medieval Bestiaries.  Although their main function was scientific the Bestiaries reflect the view that all of Creation, even the animals reflect the message of the gospels. Lions were Christ and lion cubs a symbol of resurrection because it was believed that they were born dead and only brought to life by the breath of their father. Unicorns were an ancient and universal symbol appearing in China, Persia, ancient Greece and Rome. They symbolized royalty, chastity, purity, virginity and perfect good - having two horns united as one they also symbolized the union of opposites. The horn of the unicorn was believed to neutralize poison - Christ’s power to destroy sin. Sirens, griffins and other creatures were understood to be examples of the temptations assailing mankind.

Birds in Greek myth were psychopomps, carriers of the soul; in Christianity they became symbols for the soul itself.  Fables were also popular sources; the stories of Aesop were very well known; they had been reworked in the 10th century by a writer known as Romulus and were understood to show the animal world as a mirror of the human with all the follies and wisdom of mankind. The ‘personification’ of abstract concepts also appeared in the depiction of the vices and the virtues. In the 5th century the Spanish writer Prudentias had produced the Psychomachia, an account of the battle between good and evil forces (both personified as women) for the human soul. In each case a Virtue - Humility, Chastity and so on must overcome her opposite, Pride, Luxuria, Lust. The Psychomachia was enormously popular and copies of the work were held at monasteries and courts everywhere in medieval Europe and the Vices and Virtues became stock symbols in Christian works.

The Tree of Life had been used in the east and west but The Legend of the True Cross evolved as a complete story in which the Tree of Knowledge, responsible for the fall of man became the tree on which Christ was sacrificed thereby redeeming that first sin. It had been believed that the end of the world was to come in the year 1, 000 - this idea came from an interpretation of the Book of Revelations and although St Augustine had warned against a too literal reading of the prophesy the idea had wide currency in the early medieval world. When the expected apocalypse did not materialize images of the Last Judgment began to appear in churches - generally at the west end or on the chancel arch or else on the tympana of west doors.  (The medieval Hell and Limbo are the setting for Dante’s Divine Comedy which became an iconographical source in the 14th century)

By the 12th century the epics and romances were also being depicted in churches. Many of these had begun as songs and stories told by traveling jongleurs and were put into written form in the 12th century.  The story of Arthur comes originally from Celtic myth and is actually formed from a cluster of myths. When it was written down in the 12th century by Robert Wace, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes the story had become a Christian romance.  In written form the Arthurian legends were spread across Europe from France to Italy and episodes and characters appear in churches. The Song of Roland and other heroic Chansons de Geste also figure, they were highly romanticized stories often based on episodes from the fight against the Saracens.

With the exception of a couple of periods when the Papacy had an especial devotion to Her, the Virgin had far less importance in the west than in the Byzantine Church. This began to change with the teaching and influence of St Bernard of Clairvaux in the early 12th century and the Cult of the Virgin was spread through Europe by his enormously successful Cistercian Order. 
Bernard wrote a number of works in praise of the Virgin who he taught had existed like Her Son from the beginning of time and remained with Him in heaven. She was the Church, the vessel of Christ on earth and in a famous treatis on The Song of Songs he identified the bride and bridegroom as Christ and the Virgin, the longing of the bride is the longing of humanity for the love of Christ, the longing of the groom is the love of Christ for his Church - his mother/daughter/bride. Much of the later symbolism associated with the Virgin has its roots in the Song of Songs - the lily, the enclosed garden, the mirror, the ‘rose without thorn’. Other symbols taken from the Old Testament were also applied to Mary. The book - she is reading the prophecy in Isiah ‘A young woman is with child’. A closed book ‘All prophetic vision has become for you like a sealed book’. Closed doors, a symbol of Her virginity. A vessel pierced by light, the Virgin conception. The enclosed garden - Virginity. The Canon gospels contain very little information about Mary but a number of others written between the 2nd and the 5th century are full of information about Her ancestry and Her birth. The Protoevangelium of James written in the 2nd century AD was particularly important since he gives a very complete description of the Virgin’s miraculous conception and birth and her early life. (The concept of the Immaculate Conception; - the conception of the Virgin ‘without stain’ has its origins here). He also accounts for the mentions in the Canon Gospels of the brothers of Christ. (it was important in medieval theology that the Mary’s virginity was ‘perpetual’ - James has it that the brothers were the product of Joseph’s first marriage).

Two new and very important Orders were founded in the 13th century, the Franciscans in 1210 and the Dominicans in 1216. The two were founded with different aims, Francis’s teaching was essentially unorthodox, directed at bringing the message of the gospels, the meaning of Christ’s life and the Grace of God to simple people. He and his first followers taught by example by leading lives of absolute poverty. Dominic’s Order was founded with the intention of reinforcing the Orthodoxy and turning Christians from heresy, learning was an important part of his scheme. Neither the Franciscans or the Dominicans were enclosed Orders, their friars traveled and taught and their ideas reached a very wide public. Although Francis was opposed to his Order owning property or substituting learning for Faith, a few years after his death the Franciscans, like the Dominicans were constructing churches specifically designed for preaching and both Orders had scholars working at the various universities of Europe. It was very largely due to the Franciscans and Dominicans that European art began to ‘humanise’ the Christian message. The works produced for both Orders reflect a new theology - devotional works like the Franciscan ‘Meditations on the Life of Christ’ by Giovanni of San Gimigniano and the Dominican ‘Golden Legend’ written by Jacob of Voragine drew on a number of apocryphal sources to create works which were immediate and very ‘human’ - these provided the material for a vast range of new images particularly the images of the Saints. The Pieta came from the Meditations in which Giovanni describes the grief of the Virgin when Her Son’s body is taken down from the Cross. The cycle of paintings by Giotto at Padua are taken from the Golden Legend and contain a rich mixture of symbols.

The Franciscan devotions gave the depiction of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin and the Virgin of the Humility (kneeling or sitting on the ground) The cult of the Rosary was introduced and supported by the Dominicans; in later stories the first Rosary was given to Dominic by the Virgin Herself  but the use of beads as a meditational aid almost certainly came into the west after the first Crusade. (Roses were the ancient flower of Venus, white for the goddess and red for the blood of her lover Adonis. As the Virgin’s flower they symbolized white for Her purity and red for the sacrificial blood of Her Son) Various flowers with ancient meanings become incorporated into a Christian context in the Middle Ages.  Greek and Roman myth is full of transformations, humans and gods turned into flowers or plants and flowers growing from the spilled blood of gods. The carnation was a symbol of eternal love (Ajax became one after he died) The sunflower/marigold was Clytie who follows the passage of the sun her beloved, the flower became a Christian symbol for devotion to God.  The Dandelion was the bitter herb, a symbol of grief.  The columbine ‘like a dove’ became a symbol of the Holy Ghost. Strawberries and other red berries with an ancient association with sacrificial blood become symbols of the Blood of Christ. Ovid tells of the realm of Flora, a garden filled with those transformed after death into flowers. Christianity adopted this as the Virgin’s Garden.

Very little appears in religious art which does not have a symbolic function.  Jewels -  Pearls = the female, the moon, chastity. Ruby = royalty, dignity, love, passion and in vulnerability. Sapphire = Truth and heavenly virtue, chastity. Coral, the ancient sea Tree of the mother goddess and thus a talisman, in Greek myth it grew from the blood of Medusa, in Christian art it is both talismanic and symbolic of Christ’s blood.  Birds are symbols of the human soul. Animals - Dogs, (except black ones) Perhaps because of the dog’s ancient symbiotic relationship with mankind he was seen in all cultures excepting the Semitic and Hebrew as a guardian, a defender of the law and traditionally a companion of the gods, Anubis, Mercury, Diana and of healers such as Aesculapius. In Zoroastrianism he was one of the ‘clean animals’, to kill one was a sin. The dog was often a psychopomp - in Parsee a dog is brought to the deathbed and accompanies funeral processions.  In Christian art the dog became the symbol of fidelity and also represents the Good Shepherd, a bishop or a priest. Cats on the other hand had an ancient association with darkness (in Egypt they were sacred to Set) By the Middle ages they were associated with witches and they appear in Last Suppers to denote the presence of evil and betrayal.

 Oranges appear as the fruit of the Fall. Old and New Testaments might be symbolized by the architecture - Classical or Romanesque as the Old Testament, Gothic, the ‘modern style’ as the New; both appear in Nativities. Eggs an ancient symbol of the universe and of dormant life represent the entombment of Christ and His resurrection and also allude to the Virgin birth. Shells - an ancient symbol of fertility and regeneration and sacred to Venus were used in funerary rites in the Greco Roman world to signify a journey into a new life.  In Christian art they symbolized new life through baptism (shells were sometimes used to sprinkle baptismal water).  It became the badge of St James of Compostella and pilgrims to his shrine and then of pilgrims generally. Figures as ‘accessories’ - as carvings or sculptures in images of the Annunciation usually represent the Old Testament prophets believed to have foretold the coming of Christ - the Sibyls might also appear, the Sibylene prophesies collected at Delphi were believed to contain references to the coming of Christ.

The re-emergence of Classical thought

In the 14th century there was already a ‘classical’ movement in literature in Tuscany and Umbria lead by Petrarch and Dante.  Italy had not been unified for several centuries; most of the south belonged to Spain, the Germanic emperors claimed parts of the north, Venice was a separate republic and the Papacy held its own band of states.  Tuscany was a patchwork of small city republics some of which began to grow very wealthy as trade and commerce burgeoned in the middle ages. The city had a sizeable class of extremely wealthy families among whom there was a feeling that the possession of wealth carried with it responsibility to the community. In republican Florence however, the rich had no greater part to play in the governing of their community than any other enfranchised citizen so how could the wealthy citizen discharge his responsibilities? There were  few models in contemporary society, in monarchic Europe power was understood to be given by God, an understanding supported by the Church. The ancient world offered better examples and in the early 15th century there were already informal ‘study groups’ composed of scholars and patricians (humanist groups) discussing the works of the ancients and their application to modern life. This generated a thirst for other works of the ancients, Florence had a chair of Greek at her university (created for the Byzantine Greek Manuel Chrysoloras) and individuals able to translate the works of  Plato and a number of other neglected philosophers.

This new learning was emphatically not anti-Christian; - there were priests in the Florentine humanist circles, but it did ‘broaden the boundaries’ of Christianity. By the end of the century there were scholars like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola who were cross-referencing between Christianity and other faiths and also drawing on the works of the late Hellenic philosophers. This is reflected in the kinds of works made for the patrons of 15th century Florence, figures taken from ancient examples were already appearing in religious art at the beginning of the 15th century and at the same time ancient themes were married to Christian ones or used as references in secular art for literate patrons who understood the references. These humanist ideas were making an impact on the courts of Mantua, in Padua and even in Venice. Academies (named after Plato’s Academy at Athens) - groups of professional scholars and gentlemen amateurs on the Florentine model appeared in other Italian centres. By the late 15th century there was an almost universal interest in the language of allegory and symbols. Fifteenth century scholarship interpreted the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome as allegorical figures, Venus as sacred or profane love, Mercury as esoteric knowledge, Athena as chastity and wisdom and so on. Allegories do not depict scenes from Classical myth; - the real message becomes clear only if the observer understands the ‘meaning’ of each figure. Most of the popes and higher clergy of the 16th century had Humanist educations and it was they who commissioned works like Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and Raphael’s frescos in the Stanze. In the secular world emblem painting became the ‘highest form’ of art, required by every wealthy patron. By the late 16th century manuals (the ‘Iconologia’ by Ripa) were being produced which explained the meanings of various figures and attributes and gave advice on their appropriate use. The same kinds of images appear through the 17th century in virtually every European State.

Art made for the Church was utterly changed after the Sack of Rome in 1527 and the Reformation which followed close behind. Not all Protestants were rejecting the basic tenets of Catholicism but all were rejecting the control of the Papacy and of Rome.  Many leaders of states north of the Alps believed that their Churches should be autonomous and that the Papacy had no business to interfere in local concerns. Papal infallibility was another sore point, there had been a number of corrupt Popes; Alexander Borgia is the obvious example but Julius and the Medici Pope Leo X were disliked quite as much. Their attempts to raise moneys for the building projects in Rome by the selling of indulgences sparked Luther’s open criticism in 1517. Two years later he was denying the primacy of the Pope and in 1520 he published a series of works encouraging the princes of Germany to take the reform of the Church into their own hands and questioning some of the basic doctrines of the Roman Church.

The study of Greek had enabled scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam to read early Christian literature and to make their own evaluations of the Testaments and the writings of the early Fathers.  They understood that much modern doctrine was the work of medieval theologians who had distorted Christianity. The worldliness of the Church was attacked and part of this attack was directed against religious images and particularly those containing pagan figures. In some places there was a wholesale destruction of images but Luther and the French reformer Calvin had a rather more tolerant view. Luther believed that there was a place for images in churches so long as they were Biblical, Calvin on the other hand felt that art was a God given gift but it must be kept out of churches for fear of idolatry.

Rome had to respond to the threat of Protestantism and reassert its authority and traditional theology. There was a ‘cleaning up’ in the middle of the 16th century, the time at which the Council of Trent was convened. Under the Papacies of Paul III (who excommunicated Henry VIII of England) and Paul IV. There was no longer any tolerance for Humanist ideas within the Church, pagan works were removed from the Vatican collections,works by pagan authors were forbidden to the clergy and the Index of Forbidden Books was established. In art made for the Church anything profane, superstitious or unseemly was banned. Extant works considered unseemly were ‘cleaned up’.  Daniel Volterra (known as ‘The Britches Maker) was employed to clothe the figures in Michelangelo’s Sistine Last Judgment. There would be no more blending of Christian and Pagan themes and images taken from mediaeval devotional works like The Golden Legend were also banned. Apocryphal sources accounted to have been ‘sanctified by tradition’ and were permitted.

By the end of the 16th century the Church had authorized a number of new idealistic Orders including Ignatius of Loyola’s Jesuits (1534) and Philip Neri’s Oratorians (1575) and was fighting back with a wealth of new churches and new images. A new and emotional realism was required of artists working for the Church, images were intended to be direct and explicit in their messages, to communicate with the masses rather than the educated few. Although Caravaggio frequently transgressed the rule of decorum in his paintings; - they were sometimes too realistic; - he was still highly valued by the Church.  A range of approved images which stressed the importance of  Catholic doctrines were introduced to replace the discredited ones.  1) Images of the saints and martyrs who like the Virgin Mary were able to intercede with God according to Church teaching. 2) The Cult of Mary grew in importance and a new image, The Immaculate Conception came into being. This was intended to show that Mary had been ‘with’ the Creator since the beginning of time and would remain with Him until the end of time, that the Old Testament contained references to her coming and that she was born without sin. The image of a young woman crowned with stars and standing on the moon is based on a passage in the Book of Revelation.   3) The Rosary which was officially recognised by Pope Pius V in 1568. 4) The Seven Sacraments; - Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony. 5) Images of Glory. These appeared mainly but not exclusively on ceilings where tromp l’oeil paintings gave the illusion of a view into heaven.