Decoding the Secret Symbolism in Famous Paintings

Shhh…can you keep a secret? Paintings most definitely can. Some of history’s most famous works of art have held onto covert messages for centuries through the language of symbolism, a mode of communication  embedded within the colors, brushstrokes, and forms in some of art history’s most recognizable works. From critiques of contemporary culture to commentaries on trends, these hidden symbols when detected transform into a timeless mode of communication as powerful today as they were when initially conjured within the composition. 

Join us as we decode the symbolism in some of the most iconic paintings of all time. We’ll take a deep dive into each work to showcase just how secretive these symbols can be to equip our reader with a new eye for spotting symbolism in the future. 

Sources of Symbolism 

The examples of symbolism discussed in the following works stem from sources traceable to the earliest modes of human expression. From the stylized animals painted in caves in Paleolithic Europe to the hieroglyphs used to communicate across empires from Egypt to the Maya, symbols have been a backbone of artistic production for centuries. Such symbols conveyed text, but at the same time, these pictographic languages grew to prominence other modes of symbolism emerged as well. Color, for example, began to convey its own meaning. The ancient Egyptians used azure blue as a symbol of the heavens and their pantheon of deities, hence its use often in royal regalia like the famed funerary mask of Tutankhamun as a symbol of their reverence for their rulers. Meanwhile, the courts of ancient China associated red with good luck or prosperity, hence its incorporation into decorative objects like cinnabar lacquer dishes even into the 14th-century Yuan Dynasty. 

Such symbols relayed valuable stories from history, but as the centuries progressed they also became a means of emotional expression or commentaries on contemporary culture. Symbolism continues to pervade our contemporary culture, from the brands we wear to the political parties we support. In the art world, however, these symbols weave an even more captivating tapestry of references that remind viewers of the universal nature of their messages. 

Symbolism in Famous Paintings 

Now it’s time to unpack the symbols that have helped to transform paintings into captivating spaces of intrigue. These examples showcase both the ingenuity of these artists and the incredible versatility of symbols over history. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495-1498)

Leonardo da Vinci - The Last Supper.  Secrets in paintings.

Leonardo da Vinci – The Last Supper. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Though it was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most prolonged commissions, the Last Supper he created for the refectory of the Milanese monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie is widely considered one of his greatest masterpieces. Experimental in its technique – ever the inventor, Leonardo explored in this work a combination of painting and fresco techniques – the Last Supper also overflows with symbolic content. The scene relays the final banquet of Christ’s life at which he announced to his disciples that one of them would betray him. The shock of this news ripples across the animated bodies of Leonardo’s composition, however, a closer look reveals a careful ordering of these figures. 

Framing Christ on either side of the table are apostles artfully grouped into threes, an effective compositional choice in that it recalls Leonardo’s geometrical exploration of a centralized pyramid of action. These threesomes, also echoed in the three windows in the back of the chamber, can at the same time be seen as symbolizing the Holy Trinity. Amid these trios, Leonardo is also careful to call out two key figures: Christ, at center, is effectively illuminated by the window in the background that opens onto a bright landscape and gestures toward the wine and bread on the table as a symbolic foreshadowing of the liturgical Eucharist. Meanwhile, Judas, Christ’s betrayer sits to the left of the composition and at first blends into the melee; a closer look reveals, though, that his right hand tightly grips a small sack that symbolizes the monies paid to Judas for his betrayal. As a violent juxtaposition, just above Judas stands Peter, who similarly grips in his right hand a blade, symbolizing his efforts the following day to disarm a Roman soldier responsible for Christ’s arrest. 

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510). Secrets in paintings.

Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Exploring any painting by Hieronymous Bosch is sure to be an adventure given the rich variety of motifs and references he packed into every composition. That said, Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is one of his most captivating creations. A triptych that carries the viewer from the Creation of Adam and Eve (at left) to the Garden of Eden (at center) and then straight into Hell (at right), Bosch’s painting exhibits a multitude of symbolic elements all as part of the painters’ commentary on the foibles of humanity and the tensions between morality and sin and the perils of a decadent existence. 

The atmosphere of the leftmost and central panels in Bosch’s triptych abound with peaceful and playful imagery. Happy animals cavort around groups of figures interspersed with exotic amalgams of fruits and other flora. These creatures combined with the soft greens, pinks, and blues that comprise the landscape connote an earthly paradise filled with an almost utopian innocence. This idyllic symbolism contrasts the hellish landscape of the final panel, whose dark palette and ominous creatures seem stripped straight from a nightmare. Monstrous hybrid creatures dominate the landscape and seem to torture or hold captive figures similar to those seen in the earlier panels. While each of these frightening creations has yet to be interpreted, what is clear in Bosch’s symbolism is the desire to avoid such a hellish existence at all costs. 

Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Creation of Man (1508-1512)

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Creation of Man. Secrets in paintings.

Michelangelo Buonarroti – Creation of Man. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The central panel of a sweeping series of Old Testament frescoes across the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s Creation of Man stands out as one of the most impactful of them all. A testament to Michelangelo’s multifaceted skills – this series of frescoes was the first the artist ever created – this scene offers a striking symbolic representation of God the Father’s creation of the first man Adam. Visually quoting the sculptures of antiquity that served as Michelangelo’s source of study, the nude figure of Adam reclines across the lower left foreground of the fresco with a hand outstretched toward the floating figure of God. Their fingers stay barely separate, symbolically acknowledging the divide between the divine and mortal realms. 

God’s hallowed presence is reinforced by the cherubs and angels that seemingly support his body and converge within the floating fabric that swirls around them. God’s body, though clothed, reveals a similar reflection of Greco-Roman ideals, potentially symbolizing from the perspective of the artist both his confrontation of Classical design and a commentary on the contemporary domination of the Christian church over the Paganism of the past. 

Vincent van Gogh - Café Terrace at Night. Secrets in paintings.

Vincent van Gogh – Café Terrace at Night. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night (1888)

Though not filled with the same figural symbolism seen in these earlier examples, Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night reveals the power of color as a means of symbolic expression. Painted in Arles toward the end of van Gogh’s career, Café Terrace at Night reveals van Gogh at the peak of his creativity. He selected a unique vantage point that provides the viewer with an unexpected perspective on this terrace café. From this angle, one can note that the terrace is filled with customers, however, they appear at a distance; the foreground is instead absent of figures as if to suggest a distancing of the viewer from this space of social gathering and merriment. 

Even more palpable is van Gogh’s use of color here, which is dominated by the warm yellows and deep blues that convey everything from the café facade to the starry night sky above. This combination of color reflected van Gogh’s interest in the relationship between colors and the ways specific pairings could enhance the sensation of the colors within the work. The result here, furthered by van Gogh’s use of impasto or heavy layering of paint on the surface, is the sensation of the warm illumination of the terrace set against the glowing warmth of the stars dotting the sky beyond. 

Frida Kahlo’s El Camión (1929)

Frida Kahlo - El Camión. Secrets in paintings.

Frida Kahlo – El Camión. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of Mexico’s most acclaimed 20th-century painters, Frida Kahlo poured much of her biography into many of her works. El Camion (The Bus), is no exception, as it symbolizes one of the most catastrophic moments in the talented artist’s life. In this work, Kahlo presents a row of figures seated on a city bus. Each appears to come from a different social class, from the wealthy, well-dressed woman and man shown at right to the poor mother at center and working-class man next to her in his overalls. The landscape beyond reveals a transition from the peaceful countryside to the industrialized urban core, symbolized by factories and other tall buildings. Combining these elements leads to the interpretation that Kahlo is commenting on contemporary life, both in the inequalities between social strata and in the inevitable pull of folks from traditional, pastoral communities to the bland and emotionless city streets. 

At the same time, the theme of the bus is perhaps also a symbolic recollection of Kahlo’s tragic experiences on such transport in 1925. That year, a bus on which the teenage Kahlo was riding in her hometown of Mexico City collided with a trolley and caused a horrific crash. Kahlo was nearly killed and, though she survived, she faced a challenging recovery and suffered from lingering effects of that accident for the remainder of her life. From this perspective, El Camion perhaps also equally symbolizes a nostalgia for a lost youth. 

Grant Wood - American Gothic. Secrets in paintings.

Grant Wood – American Gothic. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) 

In 1930, the United States was at a difficult crossroads. The Great Depression left much of the country destitute, and art became a space for some to seek hope for the future. Such was the context for Grant Wood’s American Gothic, which seemingly celebrated the rural past of America’s upbringing. Wood, a native of the American Midwest, championed a style known as American Regionalism, which celebrated such scenes of simple agrarian success in part as a response to a post World War I and Depression-era existence but also in a refusal of the trends of European modernism that were filtering into American circles. 

These themes all come to the forefront in American Gothic, which takes its name from the Gothic Revival architecture of the farmhouse seen in the background. Wood’s focus here, though, falls on the two figures in the foreground who can be seen as symbolizing the quintessential American work ethic: a farmer and his wife ready to tend to their daily chores. The solidity and seriousness of their representation give the painting an overall sense of determination, however, a closer look at this duo reveals some interesting contradictions. The farmer’s dirty pitchfork and dusty overalls seem a strong contrast to the crisp and clean black suit jacket he wears, while his wife, though modestly dressed with her day apron on, nevertheless wears a rather expensive cameo brooch, an unusual accessory for a farmer’s wife of modest means. What these accents are meant to imply becomes even more intriguing upon the realization that this painting is not a portrait of farmers; rather, it was staged with Wood’s dentist serving as the sitter. Thus, Wood leaves the viewer in a state of confusion: is American Gothic the picture-perfect concept of self-sufficiency, or does it question those constructs in the wake of upheaval? 

Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory (1931)

Salvador Dalí - The Persistence of Memory. Secrets in paintings.

Salvador Dalí – The Persistence of Memory. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory is one of the painter’s most celebrated works in part because it showcases all of the hallmarks of Surrealist expression. Merging a somewhat realistic landscape in the background taken from the Catalan coastline with a barren and rather nightmarish terrain that consumes the foreground, Dalí’s painting reveals the Surrealist drive to probe the subconscious mind for untapped creative material. 

It is from that subconscious space presumably that Dalí sourced the iconic melting clocks that drape across the composition. These amorphous elements can be seen as symbolizing both the fluidity and distortion of time as well as the ephemerality of existence, an aspect furthered by the closed pocket watch atop which ants seem to congregate. In addition to these time-telling symbols, the curious form that spreads across the foreground and seems to echo the elements of a human face further reinforces Dalí’s inquiry into the manipulations of time and space as a reflection of his explorations in such subconscious realms.

Decoding Art’s Symbols and Secrets 

These famous works of art abound with symbolic components, but there are even more symbols to be uncovered across art history. The examples discussed here then can be seen as an effective primer to kickstart your next investigation into art’s hidden symbols. Remember that artists make decisions in their works often for a deliberate reason, so the next time you are confronted with an artwork with a curious component or a unique mode of representation, consider these new secrets for you to decode.