Reading symbols on European medieval objects
Learn about the symbolic significance of medieval imagery
Learn about the symbolic significance of medieval imagery
The word ‘iconography’ refers to the use of symbols or visual representations to convey meaning. The term originates from the Greek eikonographia, eikon (image) and graphia (description), a description through images. The medieval period provided fascinating and beautiful artworks, many of which would have been highly prized for their materiality and significance. However, these objects offer more complex insights into the medieval period than their aesthetic beauty. These objects are adorned with imagery and symbolism similar to those in manuscript illuminations and existed to educate, tell a story or allow religious beliefs to be shared. In the medieval period, convention on the use of symbols was closely associated with their repetition in religious texts.
The symbols of sociological, cultural and more often theological significance used on these medieval objects often narrate a historical event, indicate a Saint or an Evangelist, or indicate the patronage of the object. Conformity on the use and meaning of these symbols meant that those with low literacy could read the object and do so with or without accompanying text. Thus, in a time of relative illiteracy during the Middle Ages, these symbols could be used to visually communicate a message.
Many of the symbols evident on medieval objects are similar in style and form to those contained in the manuscript illustrations of the period. The painted Triptych above illustrates how text and symbols were combined to communicate a message; here the symbols and images honour a cleric who is seen within various biblical scenes. When the doors are closed the priest is kneeling, the skull of Adam is illustrative of his mortality. Other symbols include Saint Anthony represented by the pig, a bell and a book, the tethered monkey signifying evil impulses, the sign of the cross or Tau on the foreheads of those being saved and the serpent indicating evil or sin. An inscription on the panel reads ‘Clapt, clapt, indi het snapt’, an old Dutch proverb meaning: ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! If you get this’.
Colours that were used in illuminated manuscripts also held symbolic significance, such as purple being associated with great wealth.
Storytelling was an important part of medieval life. The spoken word was integral to the sharing of oral histories, circulating the news of significant historical events or used to spread the word of God. Many objects told their stories through illustrated scenes, recounting moments in history through symbolism and imagery. One such example evident on many medieval objects is the killing of Thomas á Beckett in a Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 by knights loyal to King Henry II. This event changed the course of the European High Middle Ages and turned Canterbury Cathedral into an important pilgrimage site. Following his death and internment in Canterbury Cathedral, accompanying miraculous healings resulted in Thomas á Beckett being canonised. The story of his death adorns many medieval objects such as the wax seal impression and manuscript below, on which the saint is identified by the simple symbol of the sword.
Below: A seal impression in wax showing, on one side, the martyrdom of St Thomas à Becket and on the other, the Virgin and Child (statue) in a shrine with open doors.
Stories from the bible were also identified or told through symbols. In this way, those who had low levels of literacy could be given visual clues from the images when reading texts. Missionaries or teachers could also use symbols to help to preach and they were integral in allowing the viewer to identify stories from the bible thus aiding passages of text to memory.
Sharing stories of the saints was important in spreading the Christian faith, showing how saints lived their lives, how they lived the word of God through their actions and the events that enabled them to be canonised.
Saints were easily identifiable by their symbols or attributes. The scallop shell has always been the emblem of St. James, its lines representing the routes that pilgrims would follow, converging in Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James. Travellers would wear the symbol on their habit to indicate that they had been successful in their pilgrimage. Similarly, this flask in the shape of a shell was used to carry holy water brought back from shrines by pilgrims. In the manuscript below, St. James holds a staff adorned with the scallop shell.
The four Evangelists also had distinct emblems: Matthew the winged man or angel, Mark the winged lion, Luke the winged bull and John the eagle. Many of the Apostles had multiple attributes which came from important stories from their lives. The life of St. Peter was given distinct attributes such as the Keys of Heaven, a boat, a fish and a cockerel as seen in the staff head and manuscript below. The cockerel was to signify the Denial of Peter, the prediction by Jesus at The Last Supper that Peter would deny him before the cockerel crowed at first light.
The use and identification of symbols of heraldry expanded during the Middle Ages and similarly became a language all of its own. Some manuscripts were produced for Royal or wealthy patrons, which made expensive decoration and illustrious illuminations possible.
These patrons were identified through their heraldic symbols, in the form of animals, colours and objects. One example can be seen on the tapestry below. The stork here is an allegory for Spring, but it was also used to symbolise righteousness due to the stork’s ability to kill snakes (a sign of evil). The unicorn here is a symbol of Christ who was put to death, and the noble and brave lion eludes to the nature of the family.
This blog is part of the Art of Reading in the Middle Ages project which explores how medieval reading culture evolved and became a fundamental aspect of European culture.