As an Art teacher and Art therapist understanding visual symbolism is mandatory. Art is a communication form, a visual language; however, unlike written and spoken languages it does not have a concise Webster dictionary that can be used to look up meanings. If, for example, I want to interpret the symbols in Durer’s Melancholia, then I’m faced with the task of contemplating what he’s communicating based on my existing knowledge or I need to do some research.
Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I (1514)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The interpretation process begins with identifying symbols on an observation level; there is an angel, cherub, sphere, polyhedron, hourglass, ladder, nails, woodworking plan, saw, numbers in a grid, bell, scales, etc. But what is Durer trying to communicate by bringing all these symbols together? The title of the work gives us a clue: Melancholia = a state of deep contemplation accompanied by a feeling of depression. The theme is reflected in expressions of the heavenly characters. Any number of reasons could be given for Durer’s portrayal of this subject matter, however, in order to fit with the theme of this blog, I am going to suggest that the angel and cherub are depressed because they do not understand the symbolic meanings of all the objects surrounding them.
Did Durer know the significance of all these symbols? Maybe, maybe not. It is relatively safe to infer he had some familiarity with sacred geometry through the presentation of the polyhedron. Likewise, one could assume the ladder is a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, keeping in mind that if I didn’t know Durer was Christian and I was not familiar with biblical stories then I may not make this assumption. One can go on playing the guessing game of identifying individual symbols and marvelling at the refined technical skills Durer applied to create the composition, but doing so does not provide all the answers.
Durer’s personal relationship to these symbols is another matter. Whilst objective, educated guesses of what the symbols meanings can be made, these are not necessarily reflective of how Durer related to them. The interrelationship between symbols and their maker is vitally important in Art therapy contexts. A story one of my lecturers told explains this relationship well. She described a time when a client drew themselves as a small figure on a gigantic piece of paper. Initially, in the role of therapist, the lecturer was concerned their client had a low self esteem, as indicated by how they small they’d drawn themselves. However, the client explained that the reason for doing so was because they desired to have more space around themselves. The client expressed feeling confined by their life experiences and imagining themselves in an open space in the artwork enabled them to envision the freedom to move that they wanted in real life. To extend this train of thought to Durer, perhaps he felt his life was overcrowded with symbols and not knowing what they meant was very overwhelming and depressing?
In sum, symbols can have subjective significance and objective meanings. Objective meanings are not universal, they are informed by the culture in which they are created. For example, a six pointed star in Judaism represents God’s seal of protection, but in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Zoroastrianism, or more contemporary cults like Wiccan, a six pointed star may be used in ceremonies to conjure spirits that Jews would vehemently object to worshiping. Regardless of context, the common element is a belief that the six pointed star has magical power, unless, of course, you are an atheist, in which case the symbol is just two triangles placed on top of one another.
A Swastika is another classic example of a symbol that has multiple meanings that are dependent upon the time and place in which it is used. Many cultures (mostly eastern) have positive associations with the Swastika but due to the Nazi party’s appropriation of the symbol to represent their group and associated values, most people (in western cultures) have negative associations with the Swastika.
In consideration of the above examples, theories that propose there are universal symbols hard wired in human brains can be easily challenged, if not outrightly falsified. Nonetheless, theories like psychoanalysis are still popular amongst laypeople and academics. There is also no shortage of wannabe gurus, now and in the past, who claim the meanings they give symbols are truer than anybody else’s.
Psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), infamously proposed the idea of a collective consciousness in which so-called universal symbols “lived” in an unseen world that all humans unconsciously tapped into. Jung came to this conclusion by studying ancient religions and noticing similarities between the symbols used across faiths; he called these archetypes (see definition below).
archetype (n.) "model, first form, original pattern from which copies are made," 1540s [Barnhart] or c. 1600 [OED], from Latin archetypum, from Greek arkhetypon "pattern, model, figure on a seal," neuter of adjective arkhetypos "first-moulded," from arkhē "beginning, origin, first place" (verbal noun of arkhein "to be the first;" see archon) + typos "model, type, blow, mark of a blow" (see type). The Jungian psychology sense of "pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious" is from 1919. Jung defined archetypal images as "forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as autochthonous individual products of unconscious origin." ["Psychology and Religion" 1937] Source: Etymology online
Jung was especially fascinated with the idea of “hidden” meanings within symbols which lead him to exploring occultism. But what does occult mean? Let’s have a look …
The word “occult” can conjure up many associations that can vary from person to person. Frequently, it is viewed as an ominous reference to supernatural beliefs and practices that fall outside of mainstream religions. It has a darkness to it, as though the word “cult” within its lettering is a synonym. Whilst in some instances there is an overlap between cults and occultism, the two concepts are not the same.
The most literal meaning of occult is something that is hidden, for example, occult symbols are symbols that have a hidden meaning. The word evolved from the Latin occultus (past participle of occulere “to hide from view, cover up”) and it began being used during the late Renaissance era of 1520–30. It’s no coincidence that the word emerged at this point in time, a period when scholars were enthralled by ancient writings that had been re-discovered and made available through book publishing. Up until that point, the Catholic Church had held a monopoly on information flow so when alternative explanations to the questions of life, the universe, and everything, became available, there was some backlash. Basically, any meaning given to a symbol that the Church did not approve of was degraded, hence, “occult symbols” were viewed as unholy, and the term occult took on a derogatory inference. This did not deter everyone and the pursuit of uncovering the meaning of symbols can be seen in the emergence of practices like alchemy. On a physical level, alchemists believed that base metals like lead could be turned into gold (forerunner to chemistry), and on a conceptual level, the symbology of ancient astrology was believed to hold formulas that could transform human ills into human vitality.