(redirected from Cymbalism)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical.


1. a late 19th-century movement in art that sought to express mystical or abstract ideas through the symbolic use of images
2. Theol any symbolist interpretation of the Eucharist
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The dictionary defines a symbol as “something that stands for something else, especially something concrete that represents or suggests another thing that cannot in itself be represented or visualized.” Carl Jung said, “The inexpressible can only be expressed in terms of symbol or allegory.” In Spiritualism, symbolism is regularly encountered. Mediums will receive spirit messages clairvoyantly, clairaudiently, or clairsentiently, and these messages will frequently be in symbolic form. Many times it is better for the medium to simply describe what is being received rather than to try to interpret it him-or herself, since the symbolism is sometimes pertinent to the sitter. However, there are also many instances of spirit guides developing symbols that they present to their mediums on a regular basis, quite separate from the “main text"of the message for the sitter. For example: a pink rose may always mean love; silver bells may always indicate a wedding; black ribbon may always mean a death.

In One Last time (1998), medium John Edward said, “Like other psychics and mediums, I hear sounds, see images, and—the most difficult to explain—feel thoughts and sensations that are put into my mind by spirits on the Other Side … I must interpret the information so that the meaning is understood. I call the entire process ‘psychic sign language.’ What I’ve been able to do in the years since I started this work is to become more fluent in understanding the symbols, making it easier for me to validate the presence of spirits.”

The symbolism used is most often the same symbolism that is found in dreams. For this reason, study of good books on dream symbolism can be a great help to the understanding of messages received at séances.


Bletzer, June G.: The Encyclopedia Psychic Dictionary. Lithia Springs: New Leaf, 1998
Buckland, Raymond: Gypsy Dream Dictionary. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1999
Edward, John: One Last Time: A Psychic Medium Speaks to Those We Have Loved and Lost. New York: Berkley Books, 1998
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, The. New York: Pocket Books, 1974
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a European literary and artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The symbolist movement grew out of the general crisis in bourgeois humanitarian culture and the positivist compromising of the realist principles of the artistic image in the works of the Parnassians and naturalists and in the novels of the second half of the 19th century.

The aesthetic principles of symbolism developed during the late 1860’s and 1870’s in the creative work of the French poets P. Verlaine, Lautréamont, A. Rimbaud, and S. Mallarmé. In 1886, J. Moréas referred to this school of poetry as symbolism. The French symbolist movement was joined by the French poets J. Laforgue, P. Claudel, and Henri de Régnier; the Belgians M. Maeterlinck and E. Verhaeren; and many other poets and critics. Even after its decline as a literary faction in 1898, symbolism continued to be influential in France (P. Valéry, P. Fort, and Saint-Pol-Roux) and in the literature of Germany, Belgium, Austria (H. von Hofmannsthal and R. Rilke), Norway (H. Ibsen’s later works), and Russia.

Symbolist theory was linked with the romantic legacy, but its roots are also traceable to the idealist philosophy of A. Schopenhauer and E. von Hartmann, the creative work of R. Wagner, certain of F. Nietzsche’s ideas, and intuitivism and the “philosophy of life.” Impressionist symbolism strove to reproduce the world of phenomena only as a series of changing impressions, but symbolism strove first of all to provide artistic names for “things in themselves” and for ideas inaccessible to sensory perception. Thus, the poetic symbol was considered more effective than the image and was regarded as an artistic weapon that made possible the elevation of the facts of “experience” to the eternal, ideal essence of the world, to its transcendental beauty.

Among the general features of the doctrine of symbolism are the assertions that art is the intuitive understanding of the unity of the world, through the symbolic revelation of “correspondences” and analogies, and that musical poetry is the original foundation of life and art. Symbolism is dominated by the lyrical poetical principle, which is based on faith in the closeness of the poet’s inner life to the absolute, as well as faith in the surreal or irrational, magical force of poetic language. In addition, symbolism turned to ancient and medieval art, seeking genealogical kinship with those periods.

Despite the diversity of spiritual orientations among the symbolists—from Rimbaud’s theomachy to Verhaeren’s impassioned interest in social issues to ClaudePs Catholicism—symbolism as a general cultural phenomenon had ties with the Platonic and Christian symbolic conceptions of the world and culture.

Striving to penetrate everyday life and reach the utmost essence of being, symbolism in a mystifying form, sometimes exacerbated by the individual artist’s decadence, protested against the triumph of bourgeois philistinism and against positivism and naturalism in art. Symbolism counterposed the freedom of the creative will and a poetic imagination untrammeled by the laws of external reality to the social and physiological determinism of naturalism, with its theories of “environment and heredity.” The idealist doctrine of symbolism is a crisis phenomenon, but the creative work of its major artists has meaning for all mankind: the refusal to accept forms of society based on property ownership and associated with the alienation of men’s souls; a sorrowful yearning for spiritual freedom; faith in age-old cultural values as a unifying principle; and a premonition of worldwide social upheavals.

The symbolist poets intensified the multiplicity of meanings in the poetic image, imparted new expressive possibilities to the minor lyrical genres, and enriched poetry with the principles of musical composition. Striving, like Wagner, for a synthesis of the arts, the symbolists facilitated the rapprochement of the arts in the 20th century.

Many of the philosophical and aesthetic positions of Russian symbolism were borrowed from Western symbolism, but they were substantially reinterpreted in V. S. Solov’ev’s doctrine of the “world soul.” Owing to the social upheavals and ideological quests of the prerevolutionary decades, Russian symbolism attained a unique national and social character.

The emergence of the “new poets” in the late 1880’s and 1890’s (N. S. Minskii, D. S. Merezhkovskii, and Z. Hippius) reflected the generally decadent tendencies stemming from the crisis of liberal and Narodnik (Populist) ideas. However, with the work of V. Ia. Briusov (the collections Russian Symbolists, 1894–95, including his poems), K. D. Bal’mont, and F. Sologub, who introduced symbolist poetics, symbolism was transformed into an independent literary and philosophical school and an important factor in Russian cultural and spiritual life, the ideological and artistic meaning of which could not be equated with decadence. Of particular significance in bringing about this transformation was the “third wave” of Russian symbolism, which emerged in the early 20th century (the poetry collections of I. Annenskii and V. I. Ivanov and the creative work of the “young symbolists,” including A. A. Blok, A. Belyi, J. Bal-truŝaitis, and Solov’ev).

The organizational centers of Russian symbolism were the publishing houses Skorpion, Grif, and Musaget, as well as the journals Vesy (The Balance), Zolotoe runo (The Golden Fleece), Pereval (The Pass), and to some extent, Mir iskusstva (World of Art).

With poignant intensity, the Russian symbolist poets felt the problem of the “secret” connection of the individual and history with eternity, with the essence of the universal world process. For the symbolists, the inner world of the personality was an indicator of the tragic condition of the world, including the “terrible world” of Russian reality, which was doomed. According to the Russian symbolists, the inner world, characterized by love, solitude, and, in the lyrical heroes of Blok and Belyi, by a melancholy yearning for “gypsy” freedom or for cosmic reincarnation, resounds with natural and subterranean historical elements and harbors presentiments of renewal. The specific perception of the period was embodied in the symbolists’ view of world destinies as traceable to a general movement, as well as in various special signs and symbols derived from nature and everyday life (sunrises, sunsets, dawn, and fires), history (the Scythians and the Mongols), and the Bible and religion. Thus, symbolism was often regarded as “creating life,” as transcending art, and as a general cultural creation called on to overcome the historical gap between persons (A. Belyi) and between the artist and the common people (Ivanov’s articles).

The symbolists interpreted the Revolution of 1905–07 as the beginning of the realization of their own eschatological premonitions and their foreboding of catastrophe. As the understanding of the revolution improved, a different attitude toward the “old” culture emerged in 1909–10, as well as diametrically opposed ideological sympathies and conceptions of Russia’s historical development. These factors predetermined the crisis and disintegration of the symbolist movement in the years after 1910.

Refusing to accept the social revolution of the lower strata, Merezhkovskii and Hippius reacted with hostility to the October Revolution and emigrated. The more important poets, including Blok, Belyi, and Briusov, welcomed the October Revolution of 1917, recognizing it as “retribution” (Blok’s narrative poem Retribution, 1922) and as the culmination of the “St. Petersburg” period in Russian history (Belyi’s novel St. Petersburg, 1916) and envisioning impending changes in culture, in everyday life, and even in the human race (Blok).

Twentieth-century poetry was strongly influenced by the heroic and tragic experience of social and spiritual clashes at the beginning of the century, as well as by the Russian symbolists’ discoveries in poetics (semantic polyphony; melodic reforms; the revival of lyric genres, including the narrative poem; and the creation of new principles for writing cycles of poems).

The representational arts. Symbolism in the representational arts originated in the same ideological milieu as literary symbolism, with which it had in common its evolutionary course, as well as its ideological and spiritual tendencies. However, especially in painting and graphics, symbolism was characterized by extreme diversity, for it lacked an aesthetic program and stylistic unity.

Between 1860 and 1890, the late romantic Pre-Raphaelite movement (Great Britain), the creative work of P. Puvis de Chavannes (France), and the classicist neo-idealist masters (Germany) turned to the stylization of the art of various historical epochs, to motifs from ancient mythology, to subjects from the Gospels, and to medieval legends. Certain features of symbolism were, to varying degrees, characteristic of the work of these artists: a striving to escape from the oppressiveness of everyday life, to understand the eternal beauty of the world, to discover the “ideality” and “purity” of the art of the past, and, in addition, to impart to traditional images a symbolic harmony with the present. Until the 1890’s the manifestations of symbolism in the representational arts had in common only their complete dependence on literature in their elegiac idealization of past epochs. (They relied least on symbolist literature.) Purely literary allegories were cast in traditional 19th-century forms, using the artistic means of classicism, romanticism, or naturalism, or an eclectic mixture of the devices associated with these schools. At the same time, the symbolists’ predilection for stylization, often eclectic and factitious, was combined with pretentiously mystical allegories, usually of death, love, suffering, anticipation, or fate, and with refined fantasy, usually consisting of paradoxical mixtures of visions and natural forms. The fantastical element might be refined in an artificial manner (G. Moreau, France), naturalistically “tangible” (A. Boecklin [Switzerland] and, to some extent, H. Thoma [Germany]), indeterminate (O. Redon, France), or overtly erotic (F. Rops, Belgium).

During the late 1880’s, E. Bernard and P. Gauguin emerged as heads of the Pont-Aven school in France, declaring themselves symbolists and striving to create terse, self-contained, “synthetic” images—that is, independent, original symbols appropriate to painting. At this time, symbolism entered a qualitatively new phase of development. Symbols were expressed not in themes but in forms. Broadly speaking, the creative work of Gauguin and other postimpressionist masters, including P. Cézanne and V. van Gogh, laid the foundation for the “symbolist” artistic thinking characteristic of many of the later schools of 20th-century art.

From the 1890’s symbolism was the determining factor in the poetics of modernism in France (the nabis, including M. Denis) and other countries. The modernist masters tried to impart vigorous spiritual and emotional content to form; to convey the tremulous instability of the world but to counterpose to it definite, general “formulas of life” and a unique, unified system of symbolic motifs; to find an “immutable,” symbolic significance for every color; and to express a unifying musical principle in the rhythmic structure of drawing and composition. The modernists shared beliefs common to symbolism as a whole, including a Utopian faith in the life-giving mission of art and in the need for a synthesis of all the arts.

The creative work of many of the representatives of modernism also revealed the crisis tendencies in symbolism, especially in relapses into decadence, with its individualism and self-satisfied aestheticism; its affectation, excessive sensibility, and irrational images (F. von Stuck and M. Klinger [Germany] and G. Klimt and E. Schiele [Austria]); its obscure mysticism (F. Knopff, Belgium); its “democratic” eroticism (A. Beardsley, Great Britain); and its religious exaltation (J. Toorop, the Netherlands).

The creative work of M. K. Čiurlionis (Lithuania) occupies a special place in symbolist painting. His art is close to art nouveau; it combines elements of folklore and the fairy tale, and it is based on direct analogies with music. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries a number of masters, transcending the limits of the modernist style, imparted greater expressive power to their symbolic images. Some artists attempted to expose the ugliness of life in a sharpened, sometimes maliciously caricatured, intentionally nonlogical form (for example, J. Ensor of Belgium, E. Munch of Norway, and A. Kubin of Austria). Other artists endeavored to reveal more fully the life-affirming, heroic, epic resonance of their themes (for example, F. Hodler of Switzerland).

Symbolist tendencies were characteristic of the elegiacally brilliant paintings of V. E. Borisov-Musatov, a Russian artist influenced by Puvis de Chavannes, and the creative work of many members of the World of Art group (Mir Iskusstva). Their work, which was generally contemplative and brilliant, despite some traits tending toward the grotesque, was characterized by a purely aesthetic comprehension of the past and by excape from the present into retrospective visions. (M. V. Dobužinski’s urban fantasies and N. K. Roerich’s works, which show his proclivity for religious and mystical symbolism, do not conform to this description.) The generally outmoded attitudes of the World of Art group were ideologically the opposite of the tense, spiritual searchings of Russian literary symbolism at the beginning of the 20th century. In their vaguely mystical, superficial symbolism, the members of the Blue Rose group (Go-lubaia Roza), who had no integrating stylistic principles, were even further removed from Russian literary symbolism, with which they were, however, organizationally linked through the journal Zolotoe runo. The frequent parallels in the choice of themes and motifs by Russian symbolist writers and painters only serves to underscore the polar differences in their ideological and aesthetic aspirations. Genuinely close to literary symbolism, the creative work of M. A. Vrubel’ is pervaded by rebellious passion and a desire to conceptualize the world from a moral and philosophical as well as an aesthetic standpoint. The great change in Russian history was symbolically interpreted by K. S. Petrov-Vodkin.

The theater. The symbolist theater was inspired by the neoro-mantic conception of the merger of all the arts on the stage—a synthesis nurtured by a powerful musical principle (Wagner) or possessing at least the effect of music (Mallarmé) to “ideally express a symbol” (A. Belyi). There were three main reasons for the emergence of the symbolist theater in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First, symbolist plays requiring suitable presentation emerged at this time (for example, the works of Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, and Hofmannsthal, as well as Ibsen’s later works). Second, symbolist directors, who had broken with the traditions of the realistic theater, endeavored to emphasize more strongly the role of the subtext in drama, to sharpen the imagistic structure and musical rhythm of the play, to affirm on the stage the idea of a “symbolic theater” (“action as a symbol”), and to transform the production into a ritual into which the audience was drawn. The third reason for the rise of the symbolist theater was the steadily expanding importance on stage of the plastic arts, especially painting. Artists closely associated with symbolism wanted a more active role in creating integrated productions, the character of which they largely determined, especially in opera and ballet. The symbolist theater was characterized by the proclivity of playwrights, directors, and artists for the stylization of dramatic forms of the past, such as ancient Greek tragedies and medieval mystery and miracle plays. The complete authority of the director was established on stage, with the more or less logical result that the actors were reduced to “marionettes.”

In Western Europe symbolism was represented by the Paris studio theaters headed by P. Fort, A.-M. Lugné-Poe, and J. Ruché, as well as by the creative work of the directors A. Appia (Switzerland), G. Craig (Great Britain), and G. Fuchs and, to some extent, M. Reinhardt (Germany).

In Russia the development of a symbolist theater took an extremely contradictory course, despite the emergence early in the first decade of the 20th century of an extensive symbolist dramaturgy (the works of I. Annenskii, Briusov, Sologub, Blok, and Ivanov), the expression of common hopes for a synthesis of the arts in the contemporary theater (the collection of articles entitled Theater, 1908), and the appearance of a well-developed aesthetic program for a symbolist theater, which was stated most precisely in Ivanov’s writings, with their call for a “collective art” (for example, the collection Astrofix, 1909). The embodiment of symbolist ideas on the stage was either eclectic or obviously decadent, or it was subverted by strivings for purely visual effects and by a distracting, conventionally decorative quality in staging (the creative work of V. E. Meyerhold, for example). Turning primarily to Western European symbolist and neoromantic dramas, Meyerhold persistently asserted his own theory of “stylization” (the creation of a “general spirit” in a production). He affirmed his theory both in his writings (the collection On the Theater, 1913) and in practice, through his collaboration with symbolist painters, including N. N. Sapunov and S. Iu. Sudeikin. Often, he reduced the revelation of the symbolic meaning of a play, as well as the acting, to the picturesque expressiveness and musical plasticity of the mise-en-scène. This was true of his production of Maeterlinck’s Sister Béatrice at Komissarzhevskaia’s Theater in St. Petersburg in 1906. An exception to Meyerhold’s usual approach, the production of Blok’s The Puppet Show in 1906 at Komissarzhevskaia’s Theater, with sets by Sapunov and music by M. A. Kuzmin, integrally combined the efforts of the playwright, the director, and the composer. However, the production was interpreted as a parody of “orthodox” symbolism. Of several efforts to stage symbolist dramas at the Moscow Art Theater, K. S. Stanislavsky’s production of Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird (1908) was successful.

Disillusionment with the possibilities of the symbolist theater surfaced around 1910, during the general crisis of Russian symbolism. Symbolist dramaturgy continued to develop, but symbolist directors, including Meyerhold and N. N. Evreinov, as well as symbolist artists, turned to opera, ballet, pantomime, the revival of theatrical performances of various periods, and the classical repertoire, combining traditional theatrical forms with the general principles of the “symbolic action.” Belyi devoted a series of articles to analyzing the fundamental contradictions in the idea of a contemporary symbolist theater.

A complex, multifaceted phenomenon in the artistic culture of the turn of the 20th century, symbolism expressed a premonition, an anticipation, and, simultaneously, a fear of social and historical changes. Symbolism sharply rejected the bourgeois world order (the “terrible world”) but retained motifs of decadence. It accepted both revolution and religious and mystical aspirations. Symbolism influenced various 20th-century schools of art, including expressionism, surrealism, and, to some extent, futurism. The aesthetic doctrine of symbolism is of historical interest, but the works of the major symbolist poets have become a vital heritage in 20th-century art.


Gorky, M. “Pol’ Verlen i dekadenty.” Sobr. soch. v SO tt., vol. 23. Moscow, 1953.
“Gor’kii i sovetskie pisateli. In Lileraturnoe nasledstvo, vol. 70. Moscow, 1963.
Lunacharskii, A. Sobr. soch, vols. 1,4–6. Moscow, 1964–65.
Symbolism in literature
Balashov, N. I. “Simvolizm: Mallarme, Rembo, Verlen.” In Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 3. Moscow, 1959.
Balashov, N. I. [Afterword.] In M. Bodler, Tsvetyzla. Moscow, 1970.
Balashov, N.I. [Foreword.] In B. Sandrar, Po vsemu miru i v glub’ mira. Moscow, 1974.
Ivanov, V. “Symbolismo.” In Enciclopedia Italiana, vol. 31. Rome, 1936.
Holthusen, J. Studien zur Ästhetik und Poetik des russischen Symbolismus. Göttingen, 1957.
Stepun, F. “Die Wege des Symbolismus.” In Orbis scriptus. Munich, 1966.
Bal’mont, K. Gornye vershiny: Sb. st., book 1. Moscow, 1904.
Annenskii, I. Kniga otrazhenii, book I. St. Petersburg, 1906.
Belyi, A. Simvolizm. Moscow, 1910.
Belyi, A. A rabeski: Kniga statei. Moscow, 1911.
Apollon, 1910, nos. 8, 9, 11. [A polemic on symbolism, with articles by Blok, Briusov, Ivanov, and Belyi.]
Ivanov, Viach. Borozdy i mezhi: Sb. st. Moscow, 1916.
Solov’ev, VI. “Russkie simvolisty.” Sobr. soch., vol. 6. St. Petersburg, 1912.
Lileraturnoe nasledstvo, vols. 27–28. Moscow, 1937. [Articles on symbolism, as well as published materials.]
Ginzburg, L. O lirike, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1974.
Maksimov, D. Poeziia i proza A. Bloka. Leningrad, 1975.
Mikhailovskii, B. V. “Iz istorii russkogo simvolizma.” In his Izbrannye stat’io literature i iskusstve. Moscow, 1969.
Dolgopolov, L. “Poeziia russkogo simvolizma.” In Istoriia russkoi poezii, vol. 2. Leningrad, 1969.
Valentinov, N. Dva goda s simvolistami. Stanford, Calif., 1969.
“Modernistskie techeniia i poeziia mezhrevoliutsionnogo desiatiletiia.” In Russkaia literatura kontsa 19-nach. 20 vv., 1908–1917. Moscow, 1972.
Averintsev, S. “Poeziia Viacheslava Ivanova.” Voprosy literatury, 1975, no. 8.
Istoriia russkoi literatury kontsa 19-nach. 20 v.: Bibliografich. ukazatel’. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.
The representational arts
Rewald, J. Postimpressionizm: Ot Van Goga do Gogena [vol. 1., Leningrad-Moscow, 1962; translated from English].
V seobshchaia istoriia iskusstv, vols. 5–6, books 1 -2. Moscow, 1964–66.
Denis, M. Théories, 1890–1910, 4th ed. Paris, 1920.
Chassé, C. Le Mouvement symboliste dans l’art du XIX siècle. Paris, 1947.
Christoffel, U. Malerei und Poesie: Die symbolistische Kunst des 19. Jahrhunderts. Vienna [1948].
Hofstätter, H. H. Symbolismus und die Kunst der Jahrhunderlwende. Cologne, 1965.
Hofstätter, H. H. Idealismus und Symbolismus. [Vienna-Munich, 1972.]
The theater.
Gvozdev, A. A. Zapadno-evropeiskii teatr na rubezhe XIX i XX stoletii. Leningrad-Moscow, 1939.
Rostotskii, B. I. “Modernizm v teatre.” In Russkaia khudozhestvennaia kul’tura kontsa XIX-nach. XX veka (1895–1907), book 1. Moscow, 1968.
Pozharskaia, M. N. Russkoe teatral’no-dekoratsionnoe iskusstvo kontsa XIX-nach. XX veka. Moscow, 1970.
Rodina, T. M. A. Blok i russkii teatr nachala XX veka. Moscow, 1972.
Knowles, D. La Réaction idéaliste au théâtre depuis 1890. Paris, 1934.
Dhomme, S. La Mise en scène contemporaine d’André Antoine à Bertolt Brecht. Paris, 1959.]


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.