R-20100927-0052.jpgGerman 15th Century, The Sacred Monograph with the Crucifixion  and Passion Symbols [recto], in or after 1470, metalcut, hand-colored in light green, rose, and yellow, Rosenwald Collection

Presenting for you on Good Friday a selection of images (from the ever-great NGA Images) that show some parts of the Easter story. You might engage with these pictures as illustrations from a powerful story; as interesting examples of the developments of art in the Middle Ages; or as precious images of events that are sacred to you.

Whatever your spiritual or academic reaction to these images I wanted to explain why people who regularly interact with symbolic religious imagery – whatever religion that might be, Chrisitian or not – have an advantage over their none-religious-imagery-picture peers. Why? Because if you have grown up with symbolic imagery of any kind you will be very well-rehearsed, albeit subconscioulsy, in understanding symbolism and being able to understand that all acts of communication, especially visual communication, are more than the sums of their parts. Communication has an agenda.

R-20101022-0034.jpgAlbrecht Dürer (German, 1471 – 1528 ), The Deposition, probably c. 1509/1510, woodcut, Rosenwald Collection

One of the theories of visual communication that I regularly teach to young designers is Semiotics. My colleague often laughs at me and suggests that I am like the Tom Hanks character in Angels and Demons who calls himself a Professor of Symbology! Semiotics often seems complicated, but is really just putting a lot of jargon names to what we all do every day – understand what people, books, paintings, double page spreads mean. This is because each act of communication is made up of a several elements which are:

  • a signifier – a spoken or written word, an image, a smell, a gesture and so on, that refers to something
  • a signified – the thing that a signifier refers to. This will trigger in your mind when you read, hear, see or smell the signifier. However, no-one can be sure that everyone’s signifieds are the same. For example, if I say (write or draw) “New York” you may share a general idea of that place with others but your own specific signified triggering in your mind may also be slightly different
  • Together a signifier (providing it works properly) and a signified equal a “sign”, or an act of communication.

All communication always works like this, but we can begin to understand this most easily by exploring images such as the three here, because they have very overt symbolism. Each symbol is a signifier that might trigger your signified or thought. For example, in artthe figure of Mary Magdalene always carries a jar, which to people nowadays looks somewhat incongruous. She carries this as a signifier of her identity – so we recognise who she is by this object. The Easter story says that she annointed the feet of Jesus with ointment from her jar. The artists didn’t assume she never left home without her jar; but just use it as a signifier to show who she is.

Jesus has a spade in the last image. Again, it is doubtful that the artists thought that Jesus actually went around with gardening tools, but the point is that in this part of the story, once Jesus had risen, he was imitially mistaken for a gardener by Mary Magdalene as she was not expecting to see him alive.

In all the images you will see the stigmata of Jesus, or the wounds left by the nails and spear at the Crucifixion. These act as an identifying signifier both to show who Jesus is but also more symbolically to show what he went through and how this would impact on those of the Christian faith. So signifiers can have increasing levels of meaning. This is known as “denotation” (what you see on a very basic level) and “connotation (what it makes you think, of in ever-deeper layers of personal meaning).

I chose the first two images too because of the typographic symbolism. The first includes a typographic signifier of Christ, the Christogram “IHS”, the initials of the name of Christ in Greek, iota-eta-sigma. While the second includes the very modern-looking designer signature of the artist, Durer – a signifier of who made the image.

It is worth rembering that all symbols need to be learnt, they are not instinctive. In this sense all language is symbolic, including the language of images. We need to learn what it means. And back to my original point – if you are familiar with art or design that uses symbols to talk to you then you will be half way to understanding the theories behind this stuff too. If you feel that you are missing out just follow a free guided tour of your local art gallery to begin to catch up.

So, here is a little Easter fact-finding hunt, should you want to undertake it. Tell us what the symbols mean at the top of the first image.

R-20100324-0022.jpgFrench 15th Century, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, c. 1500, woodcut, hand-colored in maroon, orange, yellow, blue-green, mauve, and flesh; possibly applied with stencils, Rosenwald Collection

All images courtesy of the free library of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, (nga.images)