Semiotics defines a sign as having two components, the physical form and the concept that it triggers; the signifier and the signified. Where there is no natural connection between these two components the sign is considered to be arbitrary or symbolic. Symbolism had played a leading role in art long before semiotics was codified but, unlike indexical signs which are directly created by the object they signify or iconic signs that resemble the object, the artist relies on their audience understanding the code that translates the symbol into a specific meaning. This makes symbols particularly interesting because the code book is not a fixed set of rules and is certainly not passed, unaltered, from generation to generation nor across cultures. As a result not only is the relationship between the object and its meaning arbitrary but the code book being used by the audience is outside of the artist’s control.

There have been periods in history where the art buying class shared a common code book that allowed the artist to use obscure symbols with some certainty of their being universally understood. In the 17th century a school of Dutch artists created a complex code that became know as “Vanitas” (i). Their symbolism was used to communicate a religious message, life is fleeting, the afterlife is eternal, concentrate your attention on preparing for that afterlife and not on worldly pleasures. However, without the code book these still lifes appear to be purely decorative or, as used in art rooms across the country, an exercise in painting and drawing skills.


White Vanitas - Steve Middlehurst 2014

White Vanitas – Steve Middlehurst 2014

As part of my submission for TAoP assignment 4 I endeavoured to use this symbolism in a contemporary context to comment on the vanity of fashion. My overall intent for this series was to combine historical and contemporary symbols so that each would be read in the context of the other. An important aspect of vanitas is that the meaning is very intentionally built into the image, in this regard 17th century still life has a close relationship with modern advertising. This makes vanitas and modern advertising particularly interesting to read long after it was created as, whilst we can access the original code book and read the work in the way the artist intended, we cannot avoid also reading the work in the context of contemporary art, social standards and culture.

In Ways of Seeing (2) John Berger asserts that whilst oil painting has been replaced by photography as the “principle course of visual imagery” it still forms many of our “cultural assumptions” so it is relevant to look at the work of the oil painting masters and to consider whether there is a direct relationship between the use of symbolism in historical masterpieces and contemporary photography.

I looked at this subject in the context of still life during TAoP (here) where the connection between the Dutch masters and, for example, Irving Penn was quite obvious so in this essay I am more interested in how symbolic props are used and interpreted.

Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger | Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’) | 1533 | The National Gallery, London | Photograph ©The National Gallery, London

John Berger looks closely at Holbein’s paining of The Ambassadors which is perhaps better known as containing an anamorphic image which only reveals itself as a skull when the viewer stands to the right of the painting (3). This painting was created in 1533, a period of high political and religious tension in Europe (ii).

The most interesting props in this painting, apart from the skull which in vanitas terms symbolises the inevitable death of all men, are the two shelves behind the ambassadors. The top shelf contains a celestial globe and various instruments concerned with understanding the heavens and time whilst the bottom shelf includes a terrestrial globe, a book of mathematics, a Lutheran hymn book and a lute with one broken string. Less obvious is the crucifix in the top left hand corner which is partly obscured by the green curtain. There is therefore an clear distinction between objects symbolising the sky and by inference heaven and objects symbolising life in the present. The two are linked by two religious items, the crucifix and the hymn book.

Giovanni Garcia-Fenech provides what is assumed to be the original, artist intended, meaning of these symbols (3). The broken lute string and the Lutheran hymn book, the book of mathematics opened at a page of divisions and the half obscured crucifix all symbolise the divisions in the church in 1533 (iii); we are being shown symbols of heaven juxtaposed with evidence of man’s distraction with his earthly arguments about the form of worship. The ambassadors themselves probably represent the political nature of these divisions; Jean de Dinteville was France’s representative to Henry VIII’s court a position that had also been held by Georges de Selve who in turn had held the position of the French ambassador to the Vatican.

John Berger sees something quite different in these same symbols. He separates his analysis into information within the frame and symbolism that refers out of the frame. Inside the frame he primarily sees this painting as a statement of wealth and power, what he calls the “supreme buying power of money”. Their clothes, their confident stances and the valuable objects that surround them all speak of their wealth and power. He sees the props as symbols of how the men relate to the world and it is here that he diverges from Garcia-Fenech. Berger sees the scientific instruments as representing navigation and thereby symbolising the ocean trade routes that opened up the slave trade and the exploitation of the world through colonialism. The globe on the bottom shelf commemorates Magellan’s voyage of discovery in 1519 and the books of hymns and mathematics symbolise the desire to convert the natives of the new world to Christianity and accountancy.

It is wholly irrelevant to this study whether we accept Garcia-Fennech’s or Berger’s reading a combination of both or neither. (iv) The point is that the code book is not attached to the painting, Garcia-Fennech is basing his reading on what he assumes was the original code book, Berger uses a code book that has been evolved through his own experience and approach to art interpretation.

Samuel Foss -  The chief, the one who sold Africa to the colonists , 1997

Samuel Fosso – The Chief, the one who sold Africa to the colonists 1997

Berger’s references to colonialism led me to select Samuel Fosso’s The Chief as a contemporary work that extensively uses symbolic props.

Fosso helps us understand his intent by providing, what Roland Barthes would call, a text anchor preventing the risk of a “floating chain of signifiers” (5). There are a number of props to ensure we understand that this man is an African, the animal skins and tribal headwear bring the most obvious. The chair is clearly European but upholstered with leopard skin so it becomes a symbol of the appropriation of cultural motifs in both directions.

The shoes, rings and handbag represent European accessories, intentionally out of place in the African setting, this idea is carried forward with the contemporary white sunglasses that exaggerate the inappropriate mix of cultural icons.  By placing the Western objects into an African setting and around a chief the artist is also showing that the Africans had their own culture and political system before the Europeans divided up their continent.

It is possible that the handbag is a comment on the chief’s masculinity, perhaps a suggestion that he has been emasculated or de-powered. His wealth is symbolised by the excessive amount of gold jewellery acquired by selling Africa; extending, perhaps, to a comment on the modern day corruption of African leaders and the West’s continued willingness to shower them with “gold” in return for access to natural resources and markets. The sunflowers may represent these natural resources as they are not indigenous to Africa but are now widely grown as a cash crop; consequently their inclusion may also represent the introduction of foreign crops as a metaphor for  the introduction of western culture which because of their bright colours appealed to the African; he is holding them as if they are a beautiful bouquet.

The mix of cultures is extended by the choice of carpets which are a strange mix of kitsch western styles and African interpretation of these types of designs. These bright colours in  perfectly repeated patterns were attractive to a culture without the technology to mass produce artificial textiles. This made cheap imported fabric a status symbol and it is notable that African textiles are excluded from the image, we have fake fur but no handmade ethnic cloth.

We are near enough to the end of colonialism and are still seeing the hangover of that era across Africa so it is very easy for us to read this image. Whether the code book can survive 500 years as it has done for Holbein is impossible to know.


These images have several things in common; firstly they both intentionally contain complex political messages, the artists had something to say and used their respective mediums to do so. Secondly they both use symbolism to communicate that message and lastly the symbolism is derived from props that have been inserted into the image solely for the purpose of that communication.

Notes on Text

(i) “Vanitas” from the quotation in the book of Ecclesiastes “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. These painters created compositions that included an abundance of fruit, flowers, wine, imported goods and the fruits of the sea but often included snuffed candles, timepieces, books, musical instruments and human skulls. The symbolism would have been understood by the wealthy residents of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the the 1600s. Over-ripe fruit spoke of the brevity of life and if mixed with citrus suggested the sweet and sour nature of existence. Flowers symbolised the fragility of life, everything beautiful is short lived, beauty is transient, it decays. Skulls, more obviously, signified impending death whilst clocks and snuffed candles said “time flies”. Oysters, thought to be an aphrodisiac, represented sexual pleasures, an idea that could be underlined by the careful positioning of a knife. Books and musical instruments, expensive luxuries at the time, symbolised worldly pursuits. (1)

(ii) In 1529 Henry VIII failed to gain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a failure that directly led to  the English church’s break from Rome and eventually with Catholicism and the publication of the first English translation of the bible in 1538. 1533 was the year of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

(iii) The 1530s as previously mentioned (ii) were a period of high religious tension in Europe  with the power of Rome being challenged not just by Henry VIII but also by the rising tide of Lutheran ideas. Martin Luther was a Augustinian Friar who was excommunicated by Pope Leo X for distributing radical criticism of the Catholic church regarding its policy of selling indulgences and its institutional corruption. In 1534 he published a translation of the bible into German. According to Theopedia (4): “As the hope of reforming the Roman church faded, the “protestants” were forced to separate from Roman Catholicism resulting in Lutheran churches in Germany, Scandinavia and some eastern European countries, the Reformed churches in Switzerland and the Netherlands, Presbyterian churches in Scotland, and the Anglican church in England, and other diverse elements all of which have evolved into the Protestant denominations of today.”

(iv) The open question for me is how did the two subjects interpret this painting. Holbein was a commercial artist, he made his living painting portraits of the rich, royal and famous men of his time so we can assume that this is a commissioned piece that was approved by the two French ambassadors. 



(2) Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

(5) Barthes, Roland (1977) Rhetoric of the Image (published as an essay within Image Music Text, translated by Stephen Heath) London: Fontana Press


(1) Middlehurst, Steve (2014) Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas (accessed at stevemiddlehurst TAOP 11.7.15) –

(3) Garcia-Fenech, Giovanni (2013)  A closer look at Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (accessed at Artstor blog 11.7.15) –

(4) Theopedia. Protestant Reformation (accessed at Theopedia 11.7.15) –

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1 Response to Symbolism

  1. Catherine says:

    You chose some wonderful examples there Steve.

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