How has the symbolism for blood in art changed throughout history? Blood has been symbolised throughout history in a large variety of ways, from wrath and sin to life and bonds. Blood is “globally [represented as] life itself, as the element of divine life” (Blood, 2019, G. Brown) with artists from many eras representing it with similar thoughts, but different meanings and methods.
The appearance of blood can be confronting in so many ways from sin to redemption, but where does this all come from? What is the meaning behind the chalice of blood, the red liquid that can be seen all throughout artistic history? I will be seeking to understand the meaning of blood in art from different perspectives and find out what artists intentions were in depicting blood. Blood is a life-bearing liquid of bright red, a colour full of passion and primal energy. It has been seen to symbolise life, death, sin, and power, its methods of being represented varying from artist to artist.
Blood has been seen in many famous artworks, dating back to the renaissance and further such as Giovanni Bellini’s The Blood of the Redeemer (1465) which depicts an angel collecting the blood of Christ While he is holding the cross. In this artwork, the blood is being filled into the holy grail, the cup that Jesus used on the last supper to symbolise wine as his blood before having each of his desciples drink from it. In this way, the blood is seen as holy and a sacred item in the ways of bearing life but also the blood that was sacrifieced to save our sins. Other ways of depicting blood as holy could be from blood on a crown of thorns to blood shed from a sacrificed lamb to God.
Other symbolism that blood can be used for is purity and passion, such is shown in Jan Toorop’s The Three Brides (1893) with a small bowl of collected blood placed between the three women depicting the purity of their matrimony and passion of their love. I these two artworks, in both ways the blood is strongly tied to religion and the holy values it can possess. Artists thoughout history have used their religions and their beliefs to inspire themselves to create their art, many in the early 15th century to the late 17th century using the bible as their main source of inspiration.
In Elisheva Nesis’ artwork Ten Plagues of Egypt: BLOOD she represents the exodus bible story of Moses and the river he turned to blood, depicting a small group of white doves covered in the blood that lay on the ground before themselves. The artwork is described as “a mix of actuality and eternity” (a mix of actuality and eternity, n.d, Elisheva Nesis). In the earliest of histories, blood has been seen as a symbol of death and sin, but also a bond between people such as the blood of Christ. But the methods of symbolising blood as well as its meaning has changed through the ages drastically. In the book of Exodus, the final plague sent upon Egypt was the death of the firstborn.
If the families did not want their first born to die, they had to paint the blood of a sacrificed lamb above their doors. This symbolised the power of blood and spilling it as an offering was a just thing to do. In modern society, however, sacrifice for blood is not commonplace anymore. Contrariwise, it is instead frowned upon, representing a good example of the drastic changes between symbolisms. Some examples of modern art and how they represent blood can include Seb Mckinnon’s Bankrupt in Blood where the blood is symbolised as money rather than wrath or bond. It is something desperately needed from the man and the woman only to become ‘bankrupt’, a term used for lack of money, with blood.
This can be referred to with the obvious golden coins laced throughout the blood, but also the blind pain that the man and woman are tormented with. Blood is symbolised here as a part of life and a necessity that has been deprived, rather than the symbolism in older artworks with blood being connected to religion and beliefs.