Signs & Symbols: Ways of Interpreting

When investigating signs and symbols it is necessary to decide which way they are to be interpreted. This research will at various times use all or some of the following ways of seeing.


Semiotics: Signs and Symbols are interpreted using their common meaning within their cultural setting.

Iconography: As well as paying attention to the symbol in the semiotic sense, iconography looks at the placement of the symbol in relation to other symbols, including the text that may be with it, how it is communicated, the cultural significance and historical reasoning.

Social Semiotics- A collection of signs symbols are interpreted to bring about a holistic meaning for the collection. The difference between Iconography and Social Semiotics is that Iconography interprets signs within its cultural and historical context, whereas Social Semiotics could interpret unrelated signs and symbols to bring about a new meaning when put together.

Open symbolism – actual symbols placed with intention to denote a particular meaning.

Disguised symbolism – when artists unconsciously depict a symbol in their art within a naturalistic setting. The symbol may or may not help define the meaning the artist intends for the work.

(Van Leeuwen, 2001, pp.92-4)


Signifiers – The items of significance in the artwork, the people places and things

Denotation – The description of what is happening in the artwork without an interpretation.

Connotation – The interpretation. The ideas and values that are expressed by the people places and things that are represented and how they are represented.

(Bathes, 1977, p.36)


Van Leeuwen, T. 2001; Semiotics and Iconography’, in Van Leeuwen, T. and Jewett C. 2001 Handbook of Visual Analysis, Sage Publications, London pp 92-94

Bathes, R., 1977; Elements of Semiology, 36 Farrar, Hill and Wang, a division of Straus and Giroux, New York p 35