State (2018) by Daniel Heller

Symbols in Renaissance art

Symbolism is when something (a visual clue) is used to represent something else. It is the oldest form of visual communication. Symbols can have powerful meaning and evoke strong emotion in the viewers of an artwork.

Artists use realistic and abstract symbols to represent human thoughts and emotions. Symbols in the visual arts field, represent concepts or ideas not necessarily directly connected with the image but understood by the viewer on the basis of background knowledge. It is important to note that the meaning always changed, and differed based on the period, the country and the artist.

Art created during Byzantine medieval and Renaissance periods, for example, were religious in nature and contained many symbolic iconographies applied to the artworks by their respective artists. The church was the main body that commissioned the artists of the time, to produce imagery for the purpose of moral instruction and spiritual comfort to the illiterate.

What are the symbols that were used in the artworks of the Renaissance?

Renaissance period symbols

During the Renaissance period art was used as a religious tool to help people who could not read and write to understand the bible. Most artworks, particularly paintings, contained symbols or icons which held extra meaning. Some of the most recognizable Renaissance symbols were embedded in paintings by using imagery of animals, flowers, fruits and many other symbols. The use of color was used as well to give a certain meaning to paintings.


The symbolic meaning of the following colors is not directly related only to the Renaissance period. Their meaning has been rather universally accepted.

Red denotes excitement and intensity, Pink stands for feelings of tenderness, Yellow symbolizes joy, happiness, optimism, Blue reflects peace, tranquility. Green represents nature and health, White stands for purity and cleanliness, Black represents power, sophistication formality and death.


Serpents and snakes indicate the reason for the fall of mankind or something evil, the Swan symbolized purity, Dogs had a double symbolism of fidelity and seductiveness, Rabbit was a symbol of purity and fertility, Birds had several meanings which represented sacrifice, resurrection, the soul, and death, Butterflies were indicative of resurrection, the Ox represented calmness strength and humility, Dragon stood for Satan or devil, Lion for the resurrection and also courage, Cats represented lust, desire, treason shrewdness and treachery, the White Horse was a symbol of victory, lamb stood for peace, and innocence, Unicorn was a symbol of purity and harmony, Wolf symbolized compassion,


A red Carnation was a symbol of love and pink carnations, symbol of marriage, a white Lily was the flower used as the emblem of the Virgin, Orchids represented jealousy and deceit, Rose symbolized the Virgin Mary, the meaning of Tulips was wealth and prosperity, a Lily represented purity, virginity, the Iris represented spring, the Lavender was desire and the Dandelion was a symbol of innocence.


The Pomegranate stood for desire and eternal life, the Apple represented evil as in the forbidden fruit of Adam and Eve, a Pear meant marital faith. The Strawberry stood for harmony. Peaches symbolized virtue and honor. A rotting or half-eaten peach symbolized an immoral woman who has tarnished her reputation. Orange was the symbol of free will, the Lemon was symbolic of a bitter heart or a sour disposition. Grapes signified lewdness and lustful thoughts.

Other symbols

A depicted Garden represented paradise, Key stood for many things mainly access to heaven or knowledge, the Mirror had many symbolic meanings such as prudence, clarity, and fidelity or vanity and introspective nature, also truth and objectivity by reflecting a precise image, the Boat mainly associated with Christian symbols, was symbolic means of transport along a spiritual path, an Open book as expected, signified education or knowledge, the Lute was symbolic of a romantic love, the Hourglass symbolized the passing of time, Bells were a sign of clarity and transparency, a Sword and arrows were martyrdom, Trees  represent spiritual nourishment, triumph over temptation.


Getting to know the symbols that have been used by the Renaissance artists in their painting, can assist a viewer to gain a better understanding of the period. Having background information such as this would also result in a greater appreciation of the art produced during that glorious cultural period.

Suggested reading and viewing

The garden of earthly delights with commentaries by Lee van Laer Link
Decoding symbols in Renaissance art Link
Signs and symbols in art Link

Suggested ArtgreeT Blog posts

Artwork 101: Understanding paintings – HERE
Renaissance artists of Florence – HERE
Golden Section – HERE
Knowledge proliferation the narrative – HERE
Narrative art – HERE
Jacob’s Ladder – HERE