March 2010

Discovering the Great Masters - The Art Lovers Guide to Understanding Symbols in Paintings

Universe Publishing - A Division of Rizzoli International Publications

  • 300 Park Avenue South
  • New York , NY

(212) 387.3400

Have you ever wondered about those lavishly adorned images in the paintings of the Great Masters of yesteryear and what, if anything is the meaning or purpose of something as seemingly benign as a sprig of rosemary, a muzzled dog, or faded blossoms painted next to a string of pearls? In abc Discovering the Great Masters xyz , these symbols and many more are decoded for the reader, artist and non-artist alike. A beautifully realized book, each painting has a special die-cut page highlighting the most important symbols, with an explanation of each one.

By the way, a sprig of rosemary is the symbol for remembrance, a muzzled dog is symbolic of restraint, and faded blossoms denote something that will die or fade away. The string of pearls next to fading blossoms in a painting share a similar meaning, something that will eventually turn to dust. The carefully chosen masterpieces in the book examine ordinary objects and their meanings for images such as animals, flora, and classical as well as religious myths.

Among the artworks represented and decoded are Sandro Botticelli’s abc La Primavera (Spring) xyz , painted circa 1480, in which an idealized scene takes place, with Venus standing in the center of a garden, a grove of fruit-bearing trees surrounding her, grass and flowers at her feet, and a blue sky beyond. Venus oversees beauty, abundance, and harmony. The Three Graces dance by her side, symbolizing the perfect woman: beauty, sensuality, and chastity.

Johannes Vermeer’s abc The Art of Painting xyz (1665), depicts a female model posing for an artist. The symbols in the painting are charged with meaning. Among them, the artist paints a laurel wreath the model is wearing on her head, an ancient symbol of victory for soldiers and athletes. The model is dressed as Apollo’s muse Clio, the muse of history. She holds a tome that records the good deeds of men. It is clear that Vermeer considered this painting important as being symbolic of the goals of painting and of his ideals. The details spoken of here are just the tip of the iceberg. abc Discovering the Great Masters xyz is a book worth spending time with, and a great book for learning a lot about what was really going on inside the minds of the great Renaissance artists.

Reviewer: Cynthia Aaron, FIDM Library Staff Member