Most visual sources from history contain at least one or two symbols. A symbol is a way of representing a concept or an idea in simple visual form. They are a common feature in art and historical imagery.
Every society develops and uses its own set of visual symbols. In the modern world symbols are most readily found in trademarks – like the McDonald’s ‘M’ or the Nike ‘Swoosh’. Other common symbols include religious motifs, logos, icons and traffic signs.
To become proficient in analysing visual sources, history students should develop an understanding of symbols and how they are used to convey meaning and ideas. This page provides an overview of visual symbolism and some common symbols you may encounter.
The function of historical symbols
In historical sources, visual symbols are generally used to represent a particular person, group, idea or quality. The meaning of these symbols would have been obvious to most people living at the time the source was created (just as many modern symbols will be easily identifiable to you).
Sometimes the meaning of a historical symbol is obvious to us. The crucifix (Christianity), sword (military strength or power) and crown (monarchy or sovereignty) are examples. Other historical symbols are more subtle or obscure, or their meaning has been forgotten over time.
Like other important skills in history, understanding and interpreting symbols takes time and practice. Understanding a visual source requires you to identify and interpret any symbols it contains. The more sources you examine and interpret, the more symbols you will encounter and the easier this will become.
‘Apotheosis of Washington’
Let’s take a look at some examples of how symbols contribute meaning to historical images. The image above is called The Apotheosis of Washington. It is a colourised version of an 1802 engraving by John James Barralet. This image mourns the passing of American revolutionary and US president George Washington (died December 1799) and celebrates his life, leadership and achievements through the use of many symbols.
In the centre of the image, Washington is being elevated to heaven by two angels, one of whom is either Saint Peter or Father Time. Washington’s Christ-like gesture suggests that he is willing to go, that he considers his life on earth to be complete.
In the lower half of the source, several figures mourn the dead president. The three female figures (far left) are probably the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. Lady Liberty, a symbol of America bearing two more symbols (a Liberty Cap atop a Liberty Pole), grieves near his tomb. A Native American, another symbol of America, also mourns at bottom right.
Other symbols are scattered below: an eagle (representing strength and leadership); a shield sporting the national motto E Pluribus Unum (‘From many, one’); a sword, helmet and armour (symbols of Washington’s military command); a medal dangling from his grave (probably a symbol of Washington’s involvement in Freemasonry); and a fasces (representing unity, power and authority).
Barralet loaded the source with these symbols as a way of representing Washington’s personal qualities, his military and political achievements and the legacy he left for the newly formed United States.
‘Proletarians of All Countries Unite’
Barralet’s piece contains a great number of symbols. Most historical sources use more subtle symbolism. This image above, titled Proletarians of all countries unite, was created by Soviet artist Dmitry Moor in 1919. Like most Soviet propaganda, its style is more straightforward and minimalist than earlier pieces like that of Barralet.
Moor’s work depicts unity between three groups: Soviet communists (left), peasants (centre) and industrial workers (right). These groups can be identified by their dress and the items they wear or carry. The Soviet figure wears a military uniform, sports a red star and badge (symbols of communism) and carries a sword and pistol (symbols of armed revolution). The peasant wears simple dress and is carrying a scythe or sickle, while the industrial worker is wearing a leather apron and holding a hammer. The ornate scrolling around the image shows a red star containing a hammer and plough (an early Soviet symbol) and the name of the new nation.
While much of this source suggests unity between the classes, it is important to note that the Soviet revolutionary is gesturing and addressing the other two, who are listening intently. So while Moor is encouraging unity across the classes, he is also suggesting that the Soviets will lead the way in the new nation.
Building a vocabulary of symbols
As you complete your studies and examine different visual sources, you will encounter visual symbols you may not be familiar with. Try to discover or ascertain what they mean, either through further research, asking teachers or lecturers, or discussing with other students. Jot down diagrams of symbols in our notes and annotate with possible meanings.
Your vocabulary of symbols will build as you examine more sources. You will also become more proficient in ‘reading’ symbolism, understanding how symbols are used and connected, and better at ascertaining the meaning of unknown symbols.
For a glossary of common historical symbols and their meanings, visit this page. There are also several useful published guides to symbols and symbolism, such as Cooper’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols.
Title: “Visual symbols in history”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: January 5, 2018
Date updated: December 22, 2022
Date accessed: May 28, 2023