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Taking the Mystery out of Reading Old Master Paintings

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id you ever go to a Museum or view a painting, where you determine immediately whether you “love it” or “hate it” with no valid explanation? We have all been in that same situation. Understanding how to read paintings unlocks the mystery hidden in these masterpieces and allows one to fall in love with the power of art.

We take for granted what the minds eye can see on many levels, for instance when we look at a painting that showcases an Orange or an Orange tree we automatically regard it as unimportant. What we don’t realize is that the Orange or Orange tree is regarded as the symbol of purity, fertility, love and chastity. It is also very often depicted in pictures with the Virgin Mary and sometimes depicted in pictures of the fall of man instead of an Apple tree. Random oranges are just as powerful and can be the symbol of fertility shown in a painting of a marriage ceremony. Examples of this remarkable hidden symbol can be found in Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” and Sandro Botticelli’s “The Allegory of Spring”. Both of which are filled with a secret language.

One of my favorite paintings is by Peter Paul Rubens and is titled “Samson & Delilah”. This painting tells the story from the Old Testament of the downfall of Samson, the superhuman Israelite warrior who was the torment of the Philistines. The painting is based on the destruction of Samson by his lust for the Philistine Delilah who seduced him into revealing the secret of his strength. (His uncut hair) This scene is the breathtaking moment when Samson’s hair is cut causing him to loose his strength while the soldiers lurk in the background getting ready to gouge out his eyes. Even in the 21st century mans demise due to a beautiful woman has never changed. (Something’s never do).

A few of the remarkable symbols hidden in “Samson & Delilah” are the statue in the niche which depicts Venus and cupid, goddess of love and her child. The vibrant red gown which Delilah wears depicts the passion that preceded this scene and which is also the color of blood that symbolizes the gruesome action that will follow soon after. And last but not least the unusual delicate cutting of the hair that suggests the loss of strength and passion.

The paintings of the Great Masters hold so many historical events and mysteries. They have specific subjects and in many instance’s a meaningful allusion. Many works of art use this extensive language as a much deeper way to convey meaning allowing you as the sleuth to unlock what lies beneath.

Learning how to read paintings will allow you to escape and journey into another world whether it is abstract and avant-garde or dating back 500 years. With the understanding of a variety of symbols you will be able to apply them to a painting and step beyond the ornate gilded museum frame and enter a world of fantasy.

This article is Part I of “Taking the Mystery out of Reading Old Master Paintings”. The series of article will delve into the hidden language of Great Works of Art!

Copyright 2009: Mary C. Saleeby Ph.D.
Dr. Mary C. Saleeby Ph.D.

Dr. Saleeby holds a BFA, MFA & Ph.D. in Art History with a certification in Egyptology. She is an Art History Professor in New York City and gives Private lectures at various museums.


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