Many years ago when I was taking an undergraduate Art History course at National University in San Diego, we took a field trip to The San Diego Museum of Art located in beautiful Balboa Park. We had a very knowledgeable (and entertaining) tour guide. I have some vague recollections of the day spent at the art museum, but something I never forgot was the colorful (pun intended!) names of some of the paint colors used in history. I always remembered one paint color name that our tour guide mentioned, the color was “Nun’s Belly”! This was before the Internet existed, and later on I have on occasion tried to find information about paint color names in history, in particular one named Nun’s Belly, but when I put “Nun’s Belly” in the Internet search engines, what mostly comes up is Nun’s belly (Barriga de freira) – a Portuguese sweet.
Also, I discovered you can buy bush dry bean seed packets for beans named Nun’s Belly Button!
But when searching nothing comes up related to art history or the history of the names of colors in art. I tell you this little tidbit of trivia about my experience at the San Diego Museum of Art, because it helped foster a love of learning about some aspects of art. Namely, I love learning about the symbols found within religious art and their meanings.
Now the list of symbols (and their meanings) used in religious art merits inclusion in several volumes of books about the subject! I will venture to include some of the more popular symbols, and those that are unique or unusual. I will focus on fruits, plants, flowers, colors, and animals found in Christian art and their symbolism.
The Latin word for apple (mālum) is similar to the word for evil (mălum). Because of this, the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden is traditionally depicted as an apple tree. When held by a biblical figure, the apple has different meanings. When Eve holds the apple it is seen as symbolism for sin, temptation, and the dangerous notion of enlightened and knowledgeable females. When Adam holds the apple, it symbolizes the fall of man. However, when held by Jesus or by His mother Mary in Madonna and infant paintings, it symbolizes the Second Adam who brings life and redemption, and the apple is the fruit of salvation. (1, 2, & 3)
In paintings, the Christ child is often seen holding cherries and links to the sweetness of the Christ child’s character and of the sweetness of Paradise. The spiritual meaning in Christianity of cherries equates them with paradise, and they are associated with the miraculous and the divine. Because cherries often grow in unlikely circumstances, it is an example of God’s wondrousness and glory and shows that with God all things are possible. The link to the symbolism of the cherry is also found in the Christmas song The Cherry Tree Carol. (1 & 4)
The Fig and Fig Tree
The fig tree symbolizes life, prosperity, peace, and righteousness. The fig tree is also an allusion to Christ’s crucifixion and His resurrection. But is used as a symbol in religious art most often in relation to Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves, and thus is strongly related with modesty, sinfulness, and lust. (1. 2, & 5)
Grapes are one of the more well-known religious symbols and are often a symbol for the Christian faith. Wine is used in the Holy Mass during communion (and the juice of the grapes in other denominations). It represents the blood of Christ and thus is linked to salvation. Grapes represent fertility and can also be symbolic of the dangers of debauchery. (1 & 2) “The grapevine, with its far-reaching tendrils that connect disparate points, symbolizes the Kingdom of God and His blessing upon His people; bunches of grapes appear in Christian iconography, sometimes paired with a sheaf of wheat to represent the Eucharist; and Jesus Christ is identified with the grapevine, spreading the word of God just as the vine extends and grows.” (6)
“Linked in Christian tradition to fidelity and, therefore, to the figure of the Virgin Mary. Lemon was often an imported fruit, thus suggesting wealth and luxury.” (2) “The spiral peeled lemon peel symbolizes the unfolding of earthly life, and the individual which frees his spirit from its material envelope, to reach the pulp of the spiritual essence. But the lemon and its peeled rind embody the bitterness of the fall.” (8)
The orange tree is regarded as a symbol of purity, chastity, and generosity. It is occasionally depicted in paintings of the Virgin Mary. The orange tree is on occasion used in religious art instead of the apple or fig tree in scenes showing the fall of man. When appearing in paintings of the Garden of Eden/Paradise, it alludes to the fall of man. (9 & 11)
The peach is associated with purity, virginity, youth, virtue, and good works, and like the lemon is sometimes linked to the Virgin Mary. “The peach is symbolic of the silence of virtue and of a virtuous heart and tongue. Sometimes it appears in paintings of the Virgin and Child, in place of the apple, to symbolize the fruit of salvation.” (9) The peach is also a symbol of salvation and truth. (2)
The pear frequently appears in art in connection with the Incarnate Christ, in allusion to His love for mankind. It embodies the Christian promise of salvation and eternal life. (9 & 10)
The pomegranate features heavily in Judaism and are used in religious memorials to signify heavenly sweetness, or because of it’s many seeds is also a symbol of fertility. It’s association with fertility earned it a place in the Song of Solomon. The fruit, broken or bursting open, is a symbol of the fullness of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, and Jesus is sometimes shown holding the fruit. In Catholic symbolism, the fruit alludes to the inner unity of the Church (countless seeds in the same fruit). A pomegranate is often seen in the artwork of the Virgin Mary and Christ child. Because of it’s shape and color it is sometimes connected to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. (1, 2, 7, & 9)
Plants and Flowers:
In Christian tradition, the meaning of the daisy is closely related to the Virgin Mary. The flower is a sacred symbol of the Virgin Mary and depicts innocence, purity, humility, and chastity. During the Renaissance time period, toward the end of the fifteenth century, because of its sweet simplicity, the daisy began to appear in paintings of the ‘Adoration’ representing the birth of the Christ child, and as a symbol of innocence. It also symbolizes simple virtue, a new beginning, and hope. (9 & 14)
The lily is a symbol of purity, chastity, and simplicity, and has become the flower of the Virgin Mary. Originally, in Christian symbolism, the lily was used as the attribute of the Virgin Saints. Sometimes the Infant Christ is represented offering a spray of lilies to a Saint, symbolizing the virtue of chastity The lily among thorns has become a symbol of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin because of the purity she preserved amid the sins of the world. Lilies are very much linked with the Annunciation. In many of the scenes of the Annunciation found in artwork that were executed during the Renaissance, the Archangel Gabriel holds a lily, or a lily is in a vase between the Virgin and him. Thus, the lily is also an attribute of the Archangel Gabriel. (9, 12, & 43)
The Olive Tree and Olive Branch 🕊️
“The olive is a true Biblical tree, a tree ‘full of fatness’ which yields great quantities of oil. Its rich yield symbolized the providence of God toward His children.” (9) The olive is symbolic of fertility and abundance, of hope, new beginnings, and peace. The olive branch as a symbol of peace stems from the Old Testament story of Noah, who sent out a dove at the end of the great flood. (12) “In this passage, the olive branch is symbolic of the peace God made with men. A dove with an olive twig in its beak is often used to indicate that the souls of the deceased have departed in the peace of God. As a token of peace, an olive branch is sometimes carried by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in scenes of the Annunciation. This symbolism was especially favored by painters of the Sienese school, to distinguish their art from that of Florence, which used the lily.” (9)
Palm Tree 🌴
The palm, the palm branch is an early symbol of Christianity. It is a symbol of Martyrs to symbolize their victory over earthly temptations and misery. Christ is often shown bearing the palm branch as a symbol of His triumph over sin and death. This symbol is taken from His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem before His Passion, in which palm branches were carried by the crowd (9 & 12) who met Jesus as he arrived in Jerusalem and found in John 12:12-13:
Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King
“The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! ” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (NIV)
The reed is one of the symbols of Christ’s Passion, a reed being the instrument by which the sponge soaked with vinegar was administered to Christ on the cross. It is also used to represent the just, who are said to “dwell on the waters (riverbanks) of grace” which is related to the reed is being a symbol of John the Baptist, and his baptismal ministry at the river Jordan. (9 & 12) It also symbolizes the “multitude of faithful who lead a humble life and abide by Christian teaching.” (13)
In Christianity, the rose is a symbol of hope and joy. It has different meanings depending upon it’s color. The red rose is a symbol of Martyrdom. The white rose symbolizes love, faith and purity. A ring or garland of roses is symbolic of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the basis of the rosary. Wreaths of roses worn by Angels and Saints in religious artwork are indicative of heavenly joy. In a custom dating back to Pope Gregory I, a yellow (gold) rose is reserved as a symbol of papal benediction. (9. 12, & 13)
White symbolizes the purity of the soul, innocence, holiness, and birth. “White is a symbol of purity and virginity, from whence derives the tradition of the white wedding dress and the white robes and collars worn by Christian clergy. The Virgin Mary wears white in images of the immaculate conception, and under her blue robes in other portraits.” It is the liturgical color of Christmas and Easter within the Christian church. (12, 15, & 21)
“Black is an ancient symbol of death and mourning; it is routinely used to symbolize the devil, the underworld, witches, and mourning – except when paired with white, the color of purity, whereby it becomes a symbol of humility.” (12 & 15) Black represents “the absolute, constancy, eternity or the womb, black may also denote death, fear and ignorance.” Black is the liturgical color of Good Friday. (21) Black also implies submission. Priests wear black to signify submission to God. (19)
“Brown and gray are symbols of humility and earthiness; gray is also a color of mourning.” (12 & 15) “Brown is symbolic of the earth and was often the color of a monk’s robe, signifying humility, and God’s connection with the commonplace and the ordinary.” (21)
“Blue is the color most often associated with the Virgin Mary, portrayals of the Virgin and the living Christ (ie, Jesus before the crucifixion) wear blue mantles. Blue symbolizes truth and clarity, it is the color of the sky, and therefore a symbol of heaven.” (12 & 15) Besides the color blue linking heaven and earth (and life-giving air), the divine and the mundane, it also symbolizes purity. The color blue used in relation to and paintings of the Virgin Mary is often called Marian blue. It also signifies hope and good health. (16, 17, & 21)
“Green symbolizes life and vegetation, and is an emblem of the resurrection.” (12 & 15) “It symbolizes the breaking of shackles, freedom from bondage. It is also the color of fertility. In the Christian church, it represents bountifulness, hope, and the victory of Christ over death.” (21) In the 15th century, the devil was depicted in paintings as green. “Green was perceived as a pleasant color and one that attracted animals. Hunters dressed in green so as not to forewarn their prey. The Friar’s devil in the above painting [St. Wolfgang and the Devil] clearly fits this description. The devil is a hunter dressed in green seeking his prey “under a forest syde.” (20)
The painting portrays St. Wolfgang standing with the Devil, who is showing him the agreement to help him build his church under the one condition that the Devil will take the soul of the first person who steps inside the church.
“Yellow/gold is the color of the sun, it symbolizes divine radiance, revelation, and revealed truth. Yellow can also be used as a symbol of the devil, and of the apostle Judas, where it symbolizes deceitfulness and betrayal.” (12 & 15) Yellow is the symbol of light and purity. “It speaks of youth, happiness, the harvest, hospitality, love and benevolence.” (21)
“Red is the color of love, anger, passion, and blood. It is used in the Church to denote the status of Cardinal, and is a predominant color in images of martyrdom. Red is also the color of Pentecost; symbolizing the fiery nature of the Holy Ghost. Worn by the Virgin Mary, it is the emblem of life’s blood.” (12 & 15) Jesus is often found in artwork wearing the color red. It represents “a series of symbols: A martyr’s red blood; power over life and death; faith; fulfillment; and love.” (18) The color red “signifies action, fire, charity, spiritual awakening.” (21)
The color orange is “symbolic of endurance and strength, orange is the color of fire and flame. It represents the red of passion tempered by the yellow of wisdom. It is the symbol of the sun.” (21)
Purple is a royal color and is “a symbol of power, and often represents God. In other uses, it symbolizes repentance and sorrow, and is often used to represent the mourning for Christ crucified in the weeks leading up to Easter.” (12 & 15) “Purple speaks of fasting, faith, patience and trust. It is the liturgical color used during the seasons of penance; Advent and Lent.” (21)
Christianity considers the butterfly a soulful symbol. The butterfly is depicted on ancient Christian tombs. Christ has been illustrated holding a butterfly in Christian art. In Christianity the butterfly symbolizes resurrection and transition. (25) “Butterflies represent the metamorphosis of the soul in Christian lore, according to Baylor University. This line of thought posits that the human journey from caterpillar to pupa and then finally, to the colorful winged insect, represents the three stages of man. The human man is the caterpillar whereas the cocoon or chrysalis represents the time that man spends in the tomb. Finally, the butterfly symbolizes man’s rebirth in Christ as well as Jesus’s rebirth.” (24)
Some old Christian legends, from the third century claim “bear cubs were born shapeless, and that their mother would then give them form, “licking them into shape.” This was understood by many as a symbol of Christianity, which re-forms and re-generates the sinner. Because of that reason, bears eventually became symbols of the Church itself. The many legends including saints taming bears can be interpreted as metaphors for the overcoming of sin, or the evangelization of non-Christian peoples. (15)
“Bees and honey are mentioned widely in the Bible and clearly have significance in Judaism and Christianity. In Christianity, the bee has historically been seen as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s attributes. The honey reflecting his sweet and gentle character, whilst the sting pertaining to justice and the cross.” (33)
The lion symbolizes Jesus. “This is due in part to the lion’s reputation as the “king,” as well as an ancient belief that lion cubs were born dead and after three days were brought to life by their father’s roar. The book of Revelation also refers to Jesus as a lion: “Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed” (Revelation 5:5). C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is probably the most famous modern depiction of Jesus as a lion.” (23) The lion “is a symbol of strength, fortitude, and wisdom. In some cases, the lion represents the Hebrew Tribe of Judah. A winged lion (tetramorph) represents the Apostle Mark.” (12) The lion symbolizes the gospel writer St. Mark, because he describes John the Baptist as a voice crying in the desert, traditionally thought of as a lion’s roar (Mark 1:3). The lion is frequently pictured alongside saints Anthony and Jerome. (23)
“In some medieval images of religious art, cats are present in the scene of Eve’s fall from grace in the garden of Eden. But these are rare cases, since animals almost never appeared in the paintings of the artists of that time.” (27) “A suspicious attitude towards cats is also characteristic of the early Renaissance. For example, in his Last Supper, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449−1494) [seen above] painted the cat sitting behind the figure of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ, thereby continuing the medieval tradition of hostility towards an animal, symbolizing betrayal in this story.” (28) Although there are some saints closely identified with cat. Blessed Julian of Norwich had a pet cat with her in her anchor-hold and she is often depicted with her cat. Other saints that loved cats: St. Gertrude of Nivelles (who is the patron of cats), St. Martin de Porres, St. Modestos Jerusalem, and of course St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi loved all animals.
Gradually, cats conquered their place not only in the house, but also in painting, becoming almost a noteworthy character of “home” scenes from many artists. They usually painted cats next to children, and they also complemented portraits. (28)
The lamb “most often represents Christ, symbolism drawn from numerous references in scripture. (John 1:29: Behold the Lamb of God) When the lamb is pictured with Jesus, as in “good shepherd” poses, it represents man as a redeemed sinner. When the lamb bears a cruciform banner, it represents John the Baptist as the first to recognize the “lamb of God.”” (12 & 39)
“In medieval art, the dog took on some of its classical attributes of watchfulness and fidelity. Sometimes dogs would be drawn next to a married woman, symbolizing her faithfulness. (There’s a reason one of the most common names for a pet dog through the centuries was Fido — it’s Latin for “faithful.”)
Other times dogs were seen as healers by virtue of the natural properties of their tongue. One commentary explains, “The dog’s ability to heal wounds by licking them represents how the wounds of sin can be cured by confession. The dog returning to its vomit signifies those who make confession but then return to their sinful ways.” St. Roch, a 14th-century patron invoked against the plague, is often pictured with his miracle-working dog, who healed sores by licking them.
Later on, black and white dogs became symbols of the Dominican order or St. Dominic. This is in part due to a Latin phrase (Domini canes, “dogs of the Lord”) that closely resembles a Latin name of a Dominican friar (Dominicanus). Also, there is a story from the life of St. Dominic that said his mother had a dream that she would give birth to a dog with a torch in its mouth that would set the world on fire.” (29 & 32)
Side note: There are some instances of dogs being portrayed in a less positive light. “Titian drew on a medieval interpretation of the dog as treacherous for this scene of the Last Supper, pairing Judas with a canine to symbolize the disciple’s betrayal of Jesus.” (32) This is the same painting I referenced in the section about cats in Christian art.
Ox and Ass 🐂
The ox and ass “are symbols of the nativity, and are drawn from the apocryphal gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which quotes Old Testament prophecy: “and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. Due to references in the Old Testament, most notably: The ass was the conveyance of the pregnant virgin, and was so highly esteemed by early Christians that they were accused of donkey-worship.” (12)
The ape “is a symbol of the lower nature of man, and represents lust, avarice, malice. Satan sometimes appears in the form of an ape. An ape in chains represents sin conquered.” (12) Apes often appear in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, mostly parodying human actions. Apes appear “parodying the actions of human beings, showing tricks learned from the minstrels, as part of the visual representation of a fable or moralizing text, or fighting birds. Exceptionally, apes are depicted as winged beings, even demonic ones, as belonging to the choir of devils often seen tempting or tormenting ascetic saints. In fact, in the Puerta De Las Platerías in the Compostela Cathedral, the devil is represented as a winged ape tempting Christ in the desert. By extension, the images of chained monkeys ended up being associated with the souls of the damned in hell. Chained apes can also symbolize sin being conquered by faith and virtue. It all depends on the context: associated with evil, malice, and vice, the ape was also seen as symbolizing “the slothful soul of man.” (15, 37, & 38)
The dragon “in Christian art represents sin and the sinful nature, and is also a common way of depicting the devil [or supreme spirit of evil], especially in the context of devourer. A number of saints are depicted defeating or otherwise overcoming dragons.” (12 & 42)
The dolphin “is a very ancient Christian symbol and is drawn from earlier Greek and Roman symbolism. The dolphin was traditionally regarded as a psychopomp [guide of souls], leading souls to safety, and in this sense came to represent the Church as the guide of souls into paradise.” (12)
For Christians “who made a living by the sea dolphins became a symbol of Jesus Christ, a friend and deliverer to the “safer shores” of heaven. According to Mike Aquilina in his book Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols, there is even a dolphin in the catacombs “with an exposed heart.”
Most often dolphins are drawn twisted around an anchor or trident, as in the catacombs of Villa Torlonia in Rome, symbolizing the hope of eternal life.
In other places dolphins represent Christians, similar to how fish can be used in Christian art to represent those who follow Christ.” (40)
Snake or Serpent 🐍
The snake or serpent “is the most unusual symbol, because it represents both good and evil, depending on context. As the serpent of Eden, often pictured with human face (inevitably female), the serpent is the embodiment of Satan. In other contexts, the serpent symbolizes craftiness or even wisdom.” (12) Although often it is a symbol of an enemy or Satan and as a symbol of treachery, being cunning, subtle, sharp-tongued, but, the snake or serpent are also seen as a symbol of wisdom. (41)
The peacock “is an ancient symbol of immortality. The tail of the peacock, with its ‘thousand eyes’ are symbolic of omnipotence and often ascribed to the Archangel Michael. The peacock’s feather is sometimes associated with St. Barbara.” (12) I wrote a blog entry a few months ago about peacocks as sacred symbols in Christianity. You can read more about it here: Peacocks as Sacred Symbol in Christianity | Musings of Lady Anna Kasper.
The Phoenix “has been a symbol of Christianity from the very first century, when it was used on jewelry, amulets, and inscribed on tombstones. As the phoenix was long rumored to continually renew itself through death and rebirth, it was a perfect emblem of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life.” (12) The Phoenix has been since the early Christian church a “symbol of virgin birth, renovation and resurrection [and an] allegory of Jesus Christ Himself.” (36)
The Dove’s white body and gentle nature make it one of the universal peace, innocence, and purity symbols. It is the traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit and is mentioned numerous times in scripture. The dove also represents the soul released by death. Even the legends of King Arthur strongly associates it with the Holy Grail. The dove is the bird who brings to Noah the olive branch symbolic of God’s covenant with man, and again appears at the baptism of Christ. Because of this, the dove is used to represent grace and the seven gifts of the Holy spirit. (12 & 22).
In Christian symbolism, the unicorn is a symbol represents of purity and of feminine chastity and is therefore also used as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The unicorn mentioned in the Scripture was probably the urus which was the Hebrew name of a horned wild animal, the Urus. In King James’s Version it is called unicorn; in the Revised Version, a wild ox. The mythical unicorn liked living in solitude and is therefore also associated with life in a monastery and with hermits. (31) “St. Basil, an early Church father, wrote, “The unconquerable nature of God is likened to that of a unicorn.” St. Ambrose said, God was born on earth in the person of Jesus Christ, through the Virgin Mary. In effect, He, like the unicorn, was captured by a maiden. As the proudest and aloof of beasts was tamed by a virgin, God himself became the little child of the Virgin.” (35)
“The pelican was believed to pierce its own breast with its beak and feed its young of its blood. It became a symbol of Christ sacrificing himself for man – and because of this was frequently represented in Christian art.
The belief probably came about because of the pelican’s red-tipped beak and very white feathers, and because long-beaked birds such as the pelican are often to be found standing with their beaks resting on their breasts. In addition, the Dalmatian pelican’s pouch turns red during the breeding season.” (34)
The Swan represents love, grace, purity, beauty, and sincerity. The Swan is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the purity and love she symbolizes. (30)
☆ This blog entry is from my work in the World Religions course at Phillips Seminary. ☆
15. Ferguson, George (1966). Signs and Symbols in Christian Art: With Illustrations from Paintings from the Renaissance. Oxford University Press.
35. The Unicorn: Creature of Love on JSTOR (The Unicorn: Creature of Love by Teresa Noelle Roberts)
Related links of interest:
If you like to read more about the Portuguese sweet named Nun’s Belly:
If you’d like to know more about the Nun’s Belly Button beans:
To learn more about San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park:
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