If you wanted to give your parents a picture telling them you loved them, what would you draw? Chances are, your drawing would include a red (or pink) heart - because a heart is a symbol for love.
Symbols are objects that stand for a larger concept. Artists have long used symbols to convey meaning in their work. In particular, religious art is often loaded with symbolism, which can give it greater spiritual significance. Learning to spot these symbols - and learning how to "read" them - can turn a painting into a kind of story.
A good example of a painting that relies heavily on symbolism is Edward Hicks's "Peaceable Kingdom".
Hicks was a Quaker minister who lived in Pennsylvania during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He took the subject for this painting from the book of Isaiah, which predicts the coming of Jesus Christ and a future world in which people and animals dwell together in peace. The wolf lying down with the lamb, and the leopard curled up with the kid, are illustrations of this biblical prophecy - as is the "little child" that is "leading" them (see Isaiah 11: 6-9)
Many of the other details in the painting can also be read as symbols: The cow and the bear in the lower right corner are feeding on an olive branch, which is a symbol of peace. And the tree rising up in the background is an oak, a sign of strength and permanence.
The lower left corner of the painting depicts a scene that is not from the Bible: William Penn, a Quaker leader, is shown buying land (which would eventually become Pennsylvania) from the Indians. Penn wanted his newly established colony, which he called his "holy experiment," to be a model of republicanism and religious tolerance. He also worked hard to establish peaceful relations with the Indians. He paid them for the land and sent them messages of friendship.
By including these events in his painting,, Hicks encourages viewers to link Penn's colony with the Peaceable Kingdom.
To see this painting on the Internet, go to the site of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, at www.nga.gov.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society