It is easy to minimize the importance of symbols in culture. Art tends to focus on existential symbolism, leap-frogging over the ways in which we interpret symbols constantly, in the form of letters, roadway signs, bathroom doors, and airplane safety cards. This reminder is the jumping-off point for The Hidden Language of Symbols (Thames & Hudson, 2022) by Matthew Wilson, a deep dive into the visual symbolism of fine art, tracing its trajectory throughout the ages.

The densely illustrated book is divided into four categories, chronicling the hidden language of power, faith, uncertainty, and hope, respectively. The first, power, offers a cross-section of symbolic horses, from Donatello’s “Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata” (1447–53) to Lenora Carrington’s “Self-Portrait” (1937–38), as well as identifying falcons as the international language of authority, and raising the important question: Are dragons good or evil? (It’s complicated.)

The next, faith, examines the triumph of the palm branch, the purity of the lily versus the hidden depths of the lotus, the “mystical, multi-dimensional” rabbit, and explains why your soul is a butterfly. It also releases the soaring possibilities of doves, and raises the question you’ve always wondered, but never wanted to ask: Why do Jesus, Buddha, Mitha, and Vishnu all have haloes? (Turns out, it has more to do with globalization than their inherent indication of holiness!) Tracing the egg-as-origin symbols finds examples from a Phonecian vessel dated to 625–600 BCE through Salvador Dali’s famous “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (1937) — talk about an origin story!

Bernat Martorell, “Saint George and the Dragon” (1434–1435), tempera on panel, 61 3/8 inches x 38 5/8 inches (Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Richard E. Danielson and Mrs. Chauncey McCormick)

Over in uncertainty, cat lovers are warned to avoid the chapter on cats, and everyone is exhorted to never trust a fox. It’s a section full of black mirrors, skulls, and scythes, and even a meditation on the corruption of a symbol, the ancient swastika. But it is not the only symbol whose meaning has been twisted in contemporary use — apparently the concept of the trustworthy or “wise old owl” flies in the face of its historic use as a symbol for ignorance, misfortune, and evil. And don’t even get me started on snakes! (It is, again, complicated.)

Finally, hope, is full of fountains, unicorns, the secretly superpowerful peacock, trustworthy dogs, and extraordinary parrots. Is a fish the greatest symbol of hope? Is the carnation a flower of sorrow or joy? Why does an orchid represent the perfect man? (Because they are so hard to find in nature?) Is there any end to the symbolism of the ouroboros? (Literally, no.) Let’s revel in the friendliness of sunflowers, from “Flowers in an Ornamental Vase” (1670–75) by Maria Oosterwijick, to van Gogh’s authoritative meditation on the subject, to a Mao Zedong propaganda poster from the 1960s, which symbolizes subservient loyalty in Mao’s China.

These are just a selection from the bountiful symbol buffet showcased in the book. While the works highlighted are already beautiful on a surface level, they only gain impact as one learns, through Wilson’s funny and engaging writing, how to decipher the messages beneath.

Attributed to Ma Quan, “Flowers and Butterflies,” China, Qing dynasty (18th century), and scroll; ink and color on paper, 11 inches x 98 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from the Collection of A. W. Bahr, purchase, Fletcher Fund, 1947)
Titian, “Venus with a Mirror” (c. 1555), oil on canvas, 49 1/8 inches x 41 5/8 inches (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Andrew W. Mellon Collection)
Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, “The Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1440–1460), tempera on poplar panel, overall (diameter) 54 1/8 inches (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection)
Unknown artist, “Shiva as the Lord of Dance,” Tamil Nadu, India (c. 950–1000), copper alloy, 30 inches x 22 1/2 inches x 7 1/8 inches (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lenart)
Unknown artist, theatrical robe with phoenix and floral patterns, Qing dynasty, China (19th century), silk thread embroidery on silk satin, 4 feet 2 inches x 8 feet (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1930)

The Hidden Language of Symbols by Matthew Wilson (2022) is published by Thames & Hudson. It is available through the publisher and online retailers.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....