Two cents blog

How Icons Have Changed the World

by Paul Cornwell on 15 April 2015

Last night we launched our first BCM art exhibition for the year – Stealing Swastikas.

This exhibition, in our in-house Crucible art gallery, explores the creation, evolution and abduction of icons through the ages.

Since the dawn of time these enduring devices have communicated powerful messages in the blink of an eye. They have led armies, amassed disciples and left an enduring legacy. In this age of information overload and reduced attention spans, the power of iconography, and the temptation to steal them, has never been greater.

So, what exactly is iconography?

Iconography has been described as the use of images and symbols to portray a subject, movement or ideal.

A red poppy is an icon for remembering those killed in wars, especially in World War I. Poppies are worn as a way of sharing in the grief felt for those lost in war.


The cross has been a religious icon since the second century and represents Christianity. Marking the sign of the cross on someone’s forehead or chest was used to ward off demons.


The shape of a heart is widely used to symbolize love and romance.


The Holy Spirit is often represented as a dove. This comes from the story of Christ’s baptism when the Holy Spirit came from heaven like a dove. It is also used to represent an individual’s soul.

Christ is sometimes represented with a fish symbol. This comes from the Greek “icthus”, which is an anagram for Savior, Jesus Christ and Son of God.

A snake or monkey is often used to represent evil.

There have been several symbols or icons used for peace, including the peace sign and holding the first two fingers in a “V” shape.

Countries also have icons including birds, animals, and plants. Interestingly, many countries have chosen the eagle as their national animal, including the United States, Egypt, Serbia, Austria, the Philippines, Nigeria and Panama.

Iconography provides a shortcut way to communicate. Over time an icon can become an easy way to describe a large idea in a very abbreviated way.

And in more recent times icons have been imbedded in our society for thousands of uses. To rally national support for a particular country, to indicate where a handicapped person can park, for religion, for first aid, for politics and for sport – amongst others. There’s no doubt that icons play a very significant part of our lives – every single day!

In the commercial world icons are used for companies, for brands, for technology and for social media. How quickly have apps like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram become instantly recognizable by their icons?

And it’s easy for us to forget how the Nike Swoosh or the Silver Fern or the Harley Davidson icons live large in our lives.

So, through this new exhibition we welcome you to explore iconography as it’s evolved since ancient times right through to 2015.

We hope you agree that it is a subject very worthy of exploration and discussion.

We also encourage you to question the history and meanings of icons. Just as we have with our exhibition title ‘Stealing Swastikas’.

Few icons in history have had as many and varied incarnations as the Swastika. This ancient graphic device generally takes the form of an equilateral cross, with its four legs bent at 90 degrees. Its meaning depends on when and where it appeared. The earliest known Swastika was found in the Ukraine. It is carved on a late Paleolithic figurine of mammoth ivory, dated as early as 10,000 BC.

The Swastika is considered to be a sacred symbol in Buddhism & Hinduism. It appears as a decorative element in various cultures since at least the Neolithic age, and is most commonly recognised in Indian religions as denoting auspiciousness. Other interpretations include God, eternity, liberation, prosperity, and luck.

Similarly, the symbol appeared in ancient European cultures for thousands of years, including Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Baltic, Germanic, Celtic and Slavic civilisations.

More recently, and arguably most famously, the Swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party, and then Nazi Germany in 1920. Due to its strong association with white supremacy, and the atrocities associated with Hitler, many Western countries consider the Swastika strongly stigmatized. As a result, displaying it is illegal in many countries.

And it’s just one example of the power and evolving nature of our icons.

We invite you in to BCM to experience ‘Stealing Swastikas’ and spend some time with over 400 icons that we have on display.

Paul Cornwell is a Managing Director at BCM

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