There are a number of compilations which cover the broad range of medieval symbols. Although some focus on symbols in art, they are all helpful to one degree or another. Some limit themselves specifically to the medieval and renaissance periods while others stretch to the modern period--even including material from eastern cultures. This means, of course, that some of these books need to be used with care to avoid the problem of using a modern or eastern meaning as a basis for an interpretation of a medieval work. Consequently, each annotation delineates carefully the kinds of material covered in each source (plants, animals, colors, stones, etc.) and describes both the specific strengths and limitations for each source. These works are also cross referenced under the specific headings to follow.
Audsley, W. and G. Handbook of Christian Symbolism. London: Day & Son, Ltd., 1865.
Although this work focuses specifically on Christian symbols such as the cross, the nimbus, and symbols related to the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, it also considers some of the other standard symbols (saints, colors, etc.). While it includes no clear documentation and no index and while it does not specify medieval meanings, it is still a helpful source--especially on the biblical topics.
Child, Heather and Dorothy Colles. Christian Symbols Ancient and Modern. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.
After a short introduction on the nature of symbolism, this work addresses a wide range of symbols arranged by topics, including the cross, the Trinity, Mary, Nativity, angels, prophets and patriarchs, and the Eucharist. It also includes a section on the natural symbols (bird and beasts), numbers, the church year, and the liturgy. Although some of the meanings given are clearly modern and indicate that this source should be used with care, it is a good source on a wide variety of topics and includes a good index and bibliography.
Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962. 290.3 C496d
This source covers the entire range of symbols, including classical names, some musical instruments, and some place names. It is arranged alphabetically and gives thorough descriptions. It is an easy source to use but should be used with care since it includes both modern and medieval, eastern and western.
Clement, Clara Erskine. A Handbook of Christian Symbols and Stories of the Saints. Ed. Katharine E. Conway. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1887.
Both this edition and an earlier one entitled A Handbook of Legendary and Mythological Art (Boston: Ticknor & Co, 1881) cover the same material. Focusing on symbols in art, it includes alphabetical listings under various general headings (colors, plants, animals, saints, and mythology), an index, and a good listing of sources at the beginning of the work. This helps to compensate for the lack of documentation.
Cooper, J. C. Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Although this work is not specifically medieval, nor even specifically western, it labels the various meanings given (for example, Chinese, Greek, or Christian). It includes a good bibliography and illustrations, and uses an alphabetical listing.
Dahmers, Joseph. Dictionary of Medieval Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
This work uses an alphabetical listing but covers slightly different material from some of the others listed here. It covers such things as personal names, place names, the crusades, doctrines, authors, and monastic orders. Obviously the focus is not exclusively symbolic, but it includes important information necessary to the study of medieval art and literature.
Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. 1954. London: Oxford University Press, 1954. 704.9482 F381s
This book is a personal favorite and a good place to start. It covers the entire range of symbols, includes plates, and gives an index of names and subjects. Although the subtitle of the book indicates a focus on Renaissance art and although there is no documentation, experience has shown that the meanings given here, although not long, are quite accurate for the Middle Ages.
Forstner, Dorothea. Die Welt der Symbole. Innsbruck: Tyrolia-Verlag, 1967.
Although this work is in German, it is a very useful one, covering the whole range of symbols. It is particularly good on numbers, colors, the natural symbols, biblical motifs, and mythology. Its usefulness is further extended by a good index.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 1974. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. RR 704.94 H143d
Its avowed focus is Christian and classical themes, mostly from the Renaissance or later and mostly western. The text is organized alphabetically, and it provides both sources for various meanings and a bibliography. Since many of these sources are, in fact, medieval, it is a useful book for our purposes.
Hangen, Eva C. Symbols, Our Universal Language. Wichita, Kansas: McCormick-Armstrong Co., 1962. RR 423 H193s
This work is arranged alphabetically and covers quite a range of symbolic meanings, but it has some short-comings: the entries are short, usually giving only one meaning per symbol, and there are no sources given. In addition, it includes material from both the east and west.
Hulme, F. Edward. The History Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art. 1891. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969.
This source includes good background material on the nature of symbolism and covers a wide range of symbolic material. It includes particularly good sections on color, Old Testament typology, and natural symbols. Although it is organized by subject, it is easy to use and does identify medieval sources.
Kirschbaum, Engelbert. Lexicon der Christlichen Ikonographie. 8 vols. Freiburg: Herder, 1968-1972.
Although this source is in German, it is an important and useful work. The volumes are organized in two parts: an alphabetical listing and a listing by name. This work is carefully documented and cross referenced, and each entry includes numerous meanings, examples of each, some illustrations, and bibliography. Even someone with only a little German will be able to get some good help from this source.
Metford, J. C. J. Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson, 1983.
Although the title may sound somewhat dated, this is an excellent new source. It is organized alphabetically and is quite thorough in the subjects it treats. It also includes good illustrations of many of the items. While some of the meanings given are more modern, the medieval meanings are generally clear.
Réau, Louis. Iconographie de L'Art Chrétien. 3 vols. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958.
Although this work is in French, it is a standard source. Vol. 1 includes general comments on symbolism plus subdivided sections on numbers, colors, natural symbols, liturgy, and a general section on saints. Vol. 2 includes iconography of the Bible, and Vol. 3 focuses on the saints. The work is scholarly, thorough, and well-documented.
Sill, Gertrude Grace. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Macmillan Publishing, Inc., 1975. 704.9482 Si35h
This source has as alphabetical listing of subjects with subheadings. In addition to good listings, an index, bibliography, and plates, this work also includes good introductory remarks for each of the major subjects handled. It is not entirely medieval, but much of it is.
Vries, Ad de. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1974.
Ranging from medieval and classical to modern, this source gives full entries with citations of sources or indications of period. It is organized alphabetically and includes general articles in the text on archetypes, stones, etc., as well as covering a broad range of symbols. It also cites use by specific authors.
Whittick, Arnold. Symbols, Signs and Their Meaning. 1960. Mewton, Mass.: Charles T. Branford Co., 1971. RR 704.946 W618s
This source seems to be in many libraries, but it should be used with care since it is not primarily medieval. It includes some background material on symbols in general and an alphabetical listing with some illustrations. Fortunately it does cite sources, which helps to identify the medieval meanings.