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An Appreciation of Symbolic Art
by Michael R. Poll
I recently read a piece on archaeologists discovering cave art of three wild pigs in a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They have dated the art at being placed on the cave wall at least 45,500 years ago. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what was going on at the time this unknown artist painted those images? What was his life like? What did he see around him? What were his thoughts? The questions are endless.
The most common subject of cave art is animals, mostly large animals. Hand tracings and images of humans hunting wild animals of all sorts are common. In still other caves, abstract patterns, called finger flutings, have been found. Finger fluting is when ancient cave dwellers would use their fingers to create lines and patterns in soft sediments that lined the walls and ceilings of the limestone caves. Finger flutings can be simple lines or complex patterns. But how and why was all this created?
Cave paintings were created by mixing (among other things) rocks of various colors, beeswax, animal blood & fat, charcoal, berries, and plant oils. These ingredients would be ground, heated over a fire, and mixed well. The "paint" would then be applied to the cave walls by fingers or twigs chewed down on the end to fashion a primitive paintbrush. They discovered how to create different shades and colors for their paintings through experimentation.
As to why ancient humans created these types of art, well, why do we create and appreciate art today? There are many reasons. Life and death could be quick for early humans. A successful hunt that brought back a good deal of food was something for them to celebrate. So, the guy who could draw recorded the event on the wall. Just like we take pleasure in a painting or photograph of some beautiful place we have visited or would like to visit, maybe they enjoyed remembering the “good hunt.” Maybe seeing the animal or hunters in the act of taking down their meal on the wall of their cave brought back good memories. Looking at any images or designs on the wall was likely enjoyable for them, as it is for us today. It doesn’t have to mean more than that.
But, in time, some art developed into forms of communication. It is possible that early line art evolved into written language. No one is certain. Certainly, some images were placed on walls or places to be seen as signals of warning or notice about something. But structured, written language is generally (and arguably) said to have begun about 5,500 years ago around Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Language and communication, however, can be different things.
Archaeologists have shown that early humans hunted large animals in groups using coordinated attack tactics. To hunt in that manner, they needed to be able to communicate with each other. It is possible that their communications were limited to grunts, yells, and hand gestures. But, to hunt in the way they hunted, it was necessary for them to know what the others would do and for others to know what they would do. Without a language, they still communicated. They did something and others knew what it meant.
While written language was invented over 5,000 years ago, how many people actually used it? Some studies show that as late as the early 1700s, the literacy rate in Europe was as low as 30%. By 1800, it was still only about 50%. Studies also show that in rural areas, it was even lower. If that many could not read, how did they go about day-to-day life? Well, let’s say someone was traveling and came into a town. They needed a place to stay for the night. On the sign of a building was the word "Inn." That’s the place! But how would they know what that meant if they could not read? They knew because below the word was the image of a bed. Need a place to eat? The sign for that might include eating utensils or a plate of food. A tavern might have a mug of ale on the sign. These were very much forms of communication that provided important information to people, but they were not words. They were symbols. Without the use of written language, information was provided and received.
As Freemasons, we know well how symbols are used to educate our members. We use common images to represent moral lessons. But we were not the only ones.
The Renaissance ushered in a new world of symbolic communications through European art and literature. Enlightenment was the demand of the people. While kings, emperors, and religious leaders desired ignorance of the masses (ignorant masses are far easier to control), the people wanted Light! The problem for the people was that if they displeased the rulers, they could face imprisonment or even, in some cases, horrible deaths. They then turned to symbolic communications.
During the Renaissance, everyday things in life took on dual meanings. Animals, fish, birds, flowers, foods, and more have been used as symbols of things or ideas that would be disapproved of by the controlling powers. Colors played a significant role in symbolic messages, as did clothing, jewelry, shoes (or barefoot), and background settings. Art from the Renaissance period and beyond was filled to the brim with messages hidden in plain sight. Artists could communicate thoughts about religion, politics, or any aspect of life through art and remain out of trouble.
In the early days of Speculative Freemasonry, much of what was discussed in lodges would be acted harshly upon, and this is clearly a reason why so much of our teachings were accomplished using symbolism. If we look at what has become known as “Masonic art," we can discover that many of our teachings are represented by items and images that should not mean anything beyond common, meaningless items for workers. They become much more because they have been used in conjunction with private symbolic interpretations. So, the next time you look at a piece of art (Masonic or not), look a little closer at it. Why is blue used? Why are the hands held in those positions? Why is this door the only one open? It may mean more than you imagine. I hope this paper inspires you to dig deeper into this subject. You may find hidden gold.
(first published in A Path of Light Copyright © 2023 by Michael R. Poll)