From the crux with symbols

Did you have a nice Easter? And did you think about Dürer so often? Well, because of the rabbit, of course! No, I didn’t eat too many chocolate eggs filled with alcohol. It’s only when it comes to rabbits that I always remember an event that I attended a while ago and that I found very enlightening.

I took part in a guided tour of an exhibition that showed elements from an installation by the artist Petrit Halilaj. To go into the content and background of the work here would be too extensive, for us it is only important at this point that the artist has modeled animals from his homeland, including a field hare. Next to me stood an elderly “fine lady” who did not find the explanations of the guide sufficient. “But the hare,” she threw in (a little too excited for my taste), “that’s Dürer!” Our ‘Guide’ answered very diplomatically that the discussed work would not give such a reference, whereupon the lady shook her head without understanding. I was on the side of my colleague. Less out of professional solidarity, not even (only) because the lady was not particularly sympathetic to me. But simply because he was right.

A symbol is a symbol – is a thing

In the case mentioned above, the hare had so little to do with Dürer’s famous rodent as bugs or a Playboy bunny – or even the Easter bunny. Even the Dürer hare is a pure study of nature and has been allowed to sit around for over 500 years simply like that, completely senseless and meaningless. It looks different again when we look at Dürer’s fall from grace. Here he either stands for fertility (man should multiply), but much more he embodies the instinctive, the unbridled sexuality. – It goes without saying that he hops around behind Eve and not Adam.

Many things…

But how do we know what an object or being symbolically stands for? This is similar to learning vocabulary. We can derive a few meanings, we have to look up others, and if we discover them again and again, we will remember them at some point. Especially easy for us martyrs, who like to carry their torture tools around with them: Laurenz the rust (on which it was fried), Erasmus the winds (with which one pulled the intestines from his stomach), Katharina of Alexandria the wheel (because she was wheeled). Interestingly, despite the many martyrs, her attributes never double. The multitude of torture and murder methods is an advantage for us – we don’t throw the saints into confusion!

…a lot of animals

It becomes somewhat more difficult when the same symbols appear in different contexts: The moon, for example, symbolizes the night. If we see on a work of art a woman with a small crescent moon on her head, it is Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon. A woman standing on a crescent moon (99.999% of whom holds a small child in her arms) is Mary, who as the mother of the “light of the world” defeats the night (= the dark = evil). Alternatively it can also be a snake instead of the moon, which because of this thing was already down in paradise at that time. Unless, of course, it is attached to an Aesculapian staff, then it stands for healing. Dragons and lindworms are also popular in Christian iconography for stepping down and as a symbol of evil. If the man who fights the pangolin wears armour, he is Saint George. If he has wings instead or in addition, he is the archangel Michael.

Real animals were also often used as attributes: Lions on tombs often stand for the (faith) strength of the deceased, if one sits next to a writing man, he is either St. Jerome or the evangelist Mark. The colleagues of the latter were also provided with animals for identification: the bull squats with Luke (by the way not related to the ox at the manger), an eagle with John and an angel (ok, he is not really an animal) with Matthew.

Who put the horns on Moses

I must emphasize a figure in the circle of mythological-religious personalities. Because she is particularly strange (and the reason for it is quite funny) in terms of her attribute. It is Moses, who usually does not only wear a beard and the two tablets with the 10 Commandments, but also two horns grow out of his head, as if he were the physical one.

How could this happen?! Moses owes his diabolical appearance to a mistake: As you probably know, there are no vowels written out in Hebrew. One completes according to the context (e.g. from the consonants LBN LeBeN, LoBeN, LieBeN, LaBeN could be made). In the original text it is said that Moses “face shone”. From the Hebrew word “qāran” the verb cornuta (horned) was derived in Latin instead of coronata (radiant). So one has put on Moses in the truest sense of the word horns. The error was recognized at some point, but the image of horned Moses had already become so established that it was retained in art for a long time.


Symbols are a fine thing, because they help us in the visual world with their large number of mythological, biblical and other figures and stories to quickly recognize the protagonists and scenes of a representation. At the same time – and this applies above all to contemporary art – we can mislead ourselves through signs, objects, animals, etc. if we stick to their traditional meaning without checking whether it makes sense for the concrete work of art. Here’s to another chocolate bunny!