Symbolism – a lost art?

In conversations with students during their interviews, they often talk about red being the ‘colour of anger’ and green being the ‘colour of envy’ – but it’s generally a rather superficial and bland version of symbolism.

I was reminded of the complexity of meaning(s)  that used to be known to and employed by artists in previous centuries in an article in the Independent Online…the serpent symbolizing evil and original sin, but also, apparently, wisdom…

The National Portrait Gallery has put a copyright stamp against its illustration of the original but you can see it at here.

“The Virgin Queen, the serpent and the doctored portrait
Artist painted Elizabeth I holding a snake – then lost his nerve”
By Arifa Akbar, Arts Correspondent

When this painting of Queen Elizabeth I was last displayed to the country in 1921, curators at the National Portrait Gallery noticed spots of discolouration which cast a spiralling shadow across the Tudor posy the monarch held in her right hand. The gallery put the discrepancy down to wear and tear, and removed the work – created by an unknown artist in the 1580s or early 1590s – from permanent display.
Ironically, it is that very deterioration which has now led specialists to make a startling discovery: the anonymous artist who painted the Virgin Queen had originally depicted her clasping a snake, coiled suggestively around her right hand.
However, the artist appeared to have panicked at the last minute about depicting the Queen holding a serpent – associated with evil and original sin in Christian iconography – and hastily replaced it with an anodyne image of Tudor roses…The Queen was known to have some items of jewellery in a snake-like form, Dr Cooper added, but an image of the serpent wrapping itself so seductively around the Queen’s hand may well have caused outrage. “Maybe the serpent was too difficult and ambiguous a symbol, maybe it was too dangerous an emblem. The fact that it was painted out so quickly suggests it was too difficult a symbol for the public to cope with,” she said.
David Starkey, the historian and Tudor specialist, said serpents in the 16th century held many meanings. “There was an enormous range of symbolism in the Elizabethan period and the serpent had a dual symbolism… it was undoubtedly a symbol of wisdom. There is at least one painting that shows Elizabeth I with images of green serpents on an orange taffeta dress.”

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