Signifying with Symbols
To the majority of people living in the Middle Ages, the written word would have conveyed little or no meaning at all. For medieval artisans and thinkers trying to reach a largely uneducated and illiterate population, symbolism provided a conduit to express meaning. This exhibit features five objects that rely on symbolism to convey their messages: a 3rd-5th century Roman fish-shaped amulet or theater ticket, a 13th century French roundel with basilisks, a 12th century Byzantine lock in the shape of an ibex, a 12th century English or French crozier, and a 12th-13th century Byantine weight.
As you examine these objects, try to think about how and why they use symbolism. Why, for instance, do so many of these objects shaped in the form of animals? What does it mean to use animals as symbols in secular objects? How does the symbolic character of the lock and the amulet or theater ticket affect the way they operate as commercial objects? By featuring these objects in our exhibit, we argue that familiar and accessible animal forms conveyed easily understandable symbolic meaning in secular commercial objects used by a largely uneducated audience.
Moreover, secondary literature corroborates our argument about the prevalence of animal symbols in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, in which many of our objects are dated. For more on animal symbols in a variety of places and cultures in the 12th century, see Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries by A. P. Kazhdan and Ann Wharton Epstein, Nectar and Illusion: Nature in Byzantine Art and Literature by Henry Maguire, and Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook by Cassandra Eason.