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    Another way that we can consider art is to consider the context of its creation and use. Any work of art will reflect, to some extent, the cultural moment in which it appeared. This means that the artist and/or patron made choices that reflect the physical place and the cultural or subcultural group in which they lived and worked and the shared ways of being, living, or thinking that defined that group. The group’s defining features might be national, regional, racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or related to gender, age, occupation, avocation, class, condition, or some other aspect(s) they have in common, by choice or by chance.

    The artworks we encounter are filled with iconographic reference, symbols, and metaphorical allusions that give us clues to the broader and deeper meanings that were intended by the artist or patron. These prompt us to further investigation and/or contemplation that can lead us to those meanings. At the same time, they can also prompt insights beyond the original meaning, especially when they are presented as a partial statement of a larger myth or narrative we already know and understand or we might discover through further research. It is important for us to distinguish between those types of reading as we explore to carefully differentiate between what we can learn about the original meaning and our own responses to what we see. This is true of all sorts of symbolism, as we should avoid the temptation to ascribe a truly universal idea or meaning for a symbol or motif. This makes both the discovery process and the viewing experience endlessly interesting.

    Some works purposefully oppose prevailing issues in the culture, and pointedly so. We will see these oppositions in detail when we look at works concerned with religion, war, race, gender, and other themes. Thus, in order to understand and analyze the full meaning of any specific artwork, we must take into account just where and when it was made and what sociocultural, symbolic, and iconographic features and meanings might be considered as relevant factors in its creation and use.

    Test Yourself

    1. How are seventeenth-century Dutch still life paintings related to historical events in the Netherlands at that time?
    2. How did Lilly Martin Spencer counter social conventions of behavior at the time she was painting?
    3. Describe an example of how industrial advances in the nineteenth century impacted art in the United States.
    4. Give an example of how personal identity might be expressed in art.
    5. Give an example of symbolism used and its meaning in Chinese painting during the Yuan Dynasty.
    6. Give an example of art being used in scientific discoveries.
    7. Give an example of a symbolic object and its meaning.
    8. Define symbolism and iconography, and describe the difference between them.
    9. Describe the relationship between symbolism and visual literacy.
    10. What did objects found at the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial visually communicate?
    11. What are some common alities in what is represented in the Column of Trajan and the Bayeux Tapestry?
    12. Describe changes in the symbolic motif of winged creature in human form (today an angel) prior to Christianity.
    13. Describe how symbolic motifs can be used to indicate divinity or a ruler.
    14. Give an example of metaphoric meaning in art.


    aureole or mandorla: a pointed circle of light or radiance surrounding a holy figure.

    cloisonné: decorative work created by affixing metal strips to a surface, making compartments, that are filled with powdered material and melted at high temperatures.

    deity: a divinity, a god or goddess.

    genre: subjects or scenes of everyday life.

    golden ratio: a relationship of parts achieved when the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part; the golden ratio in art and architecture provides the most harmonious and visually pleasing proportions.

    halo: usually a circular area of light appearing behind the head of a holy person or creature.

    hierarchical arrangement: where the hierarchy or ranking of people or objects is represented by their different sizes, according to their relative importance.

    hoard: a collection of objects.

    iconography: the study and interpretation of subject matter and pictorial themes in a work of art.

    mandorla: (see aureole).

    martyr: individual who died for their faith.

    metaphor: a figure of speech in which one thing symbolically stands for another, perhaps unrelated, thing or idea.

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