What Is Symbolism in Art History?

Art|Art History

Symbolism in art history is a way of conveying ideas, emotions, and messages through the use of symbols and imagery. Symbolic art has been used since ancient times to communicate complex concepts that are difficult to express in words. Symbolic art can be found in all types of artwork, from paintings and sculptures to architecture, textiles, and even music.

Symbols can be anything that stands for something else, such as an animal or an object. A symbol may represent an idea, emotion, or event.

For example, a dove is often used to represent peace or a heart shape might be used to symbolize love. Symbols can also take on abstract meanings such as justice or hope. In art history, symbols are often used as part of the narrative being told by the artist.

The use of symbolism in art history is closely related to the development of religious iconography and mythological imagery. Ancient cultures often created symbolic images to depict their gods and myths, which were then passed down through generations. As religions changed and evolved over time, so did the symbolism associated with them.

Symbolism can also be seen in more modern works of art as well. During the Renaissance period, artists began to make use of symbolism in their work to create grand narratives about religion and the world around them. These grand narratives were often filled with allegorical figures meant to represent concepts such as morality or justice.

Symbolism can also be found in more contemporary works of art too. Some modern artists make use of symbols to convey messages about social issues or political themes they wish to explore.

An example is Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster from Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign which featured a stylized image of Obama surrounded by stars and stripes – a powerful symbol representing hope for change in America.


In conclusion, symbolism has played an important role throughout art history by allowing artists to communicate complex ideas through symbols and imagery that could not be expressed through words alone. Symbolism has been used since ancient times by cultures around the world as well as during more recent periods like the Renaissance era and even today’s modern times.