Signs, Symbols, Metaphors & Allegory
Humans communicate via symbols. This is what language is at the most basic level.
Consider how we express ourselves through aspects of our physicality and cultural.
- hair style
- body language
- use of language
- National flags
- occupational uniforms
- gender clothes
- hair style
- physical attributes
- religion symbols
- sports teams
In many ways these attributes are or become symbolic.
Artists of all types extend expressive capabilities by being inventive in their use and exploitation of both symbol and interpretation of symbol.
Visual Signs & Symbols
have practical, unambiguous meaning
are more complex and have greater imaginative resonance
stand for an object by resemblance
is use of an image for something it does not literally denote
is often symbolic representation of a moral or political concept
involves a twist of language, often by using the opposite of what is meant
is a humorous or satirical imitation
- marks or language units that denote another thing.
- signs usually have practical, unambiguous meaning.
Discussion of the term sign is a topic of semiotics and philosophies of language. It can be defined as a basic unit of meaning, and refers to the concept that something indicates or signifies some meaning.
In the visual realm, we also have signs which contain symbols. These symbols can be simple or complex. Either way, they are meant to communicate specific meanings to a given audience.
For example: Recreational Signs
Part of being culturally literate is knowing how to read signs such as these.
- are more imaginative than signs.
- have psychological value.
- heighten the significance of the image portrayed.
- can inspire collective action.
What is a Symbol?
Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.
Here are two websites that have both graphical (image-based) and word-based indexes. You can find almost every sign from Western culture here.
- stand for its object by resemblance.
- historically are a representation of a sacred person.
Byzantine painters did not paint sacred icons realistic or lifelike to keep a boundary between the physical and spiritual world.
Original Macintosh icons, 1984
Computers & Technology continue to add to the symbol database. Many symbols such as these have become part of font sets. They are called dingbats.
Check out California graphic designer John Hersey’s Dingbats.
Icon from Magnets of Meaning SFMOMA
Symbols through Time
- symbols gave significance to human life and the mysterious.
- used for magic, to ward off evil, honor gods, inspire loyalty, instill fear.
- royal seals and coats of arms depicted lineage, aspirations, virtues of nobleman.
- symbols lost power in the Renaissance.
- science, reason and the individual lead to a loss of traditional beliefs and ritual.
- trademarks for guilds appeared.
- trademarks firmly rooted in corporate and product identity.
- Corporate identity and branding permeates our global society.
Here are some historical symbols and their interpretations in different contexts.
alchemy = the integration of opposites
Mesopotamian = astronomical plot of Venus’ movements
Egypt = the sun’s daily return to its point of departure, passing through sky and underworld
Egypt = wedjat, or eye of Horus
Unity in duality, balanced dynamism, Yin (female) moist, dark, passive, soft, pliable and intuitive earth, flowers, lunar animals & birds
A single path or unicursal tool for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation.
Indo-Iran = sun or skygods
An example of a historical symbol whose meaning has change through time and context, the NIKE logo was created by Caroline Davidson in 1971.
The SWOOSH represents the wing of the Greek Goddess Nike.
Davidson met Phil Knight (the founder of Nike) while in an accounting class. She received $35 for the first SWOOSH. Although I can not find any documentation, it is my understanding that she receives 5 cents every time the logo is used, and yes has made millions.
• There are some scholars who believe that pre-patriarchy, Nike was a goddess who brought ease of childbirth.
What does each of these images communicate about Nike?
Here are two symbols which look very similar, yet have very different effects/interpretations. What do they mean to you?
Peace Symbol (Scroll down to The peace sign to see the history of this symbol and how it was conceptualized.)
http://www.csuchico.edu/~nwylde/250/symbolsnet/young_river.mp3Poetry and song lyrics are rich with metaphors.
Visual artists create visual metaphors. These may be much less explicit/obvious than many symbols, but they often are based on cultural metaphors, and thus require the context of the culture to be understood.
Jean Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Eggs, 1756
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Broken Pitcher, 1891
Perhaps you have seen this painting in San Francisco at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Like The Broken Eggs, the metaphor here is about the loss of innocence.
Can you interpret additional possible underlying meanings for this painting?
Bouguereau’s paintings are sometimes described as kitsch. What qualities make this image kitschy?
Can you identify any metaphors, old or new, for males in this or another culture?
Allegory is a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative, are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.
The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious, or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas such as charity, greed, or envy.
Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.
Allegory, in literature, is a symbolic story that serves as a disguised representation for meanings other than those indicated on the surface. The characters in an allegory often have no individual personality, but are embodiments of moral qualities and other abstractions.
The allegory is closely related to the parable, fable, and metaphor, differing from them largely in intricacy and length.
A great variety of literary forms have been used for allegories.
What does Justice remind you of?
Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
In this history painting, Liberty is an allegorical figure, not a real person. The image tells the story of the French Revolution.