Paint the World is a 501(c)3 aiming to shift the paradigm around the impact potential of the arts. In 2021, PTW ran programs in 6 countries, engaging healthcare, education, and engineering professionals. Our Symbols Series is an exploration of archetypal symbols that arise from a community’s collective unconscious & how we can strategically use the appearance of these symbols in art to better understand community needs. To stay up to date on latest releases, follow us on instagram, and join us here.
An ancient theme within many mythologies, the concept of rebirth and resurrection has been a prominent motif in the art world for centuries. The idea of coming back from the dead is not only found in religion, but also features prominently in Greek mythology where it is used as a literary technique to illustrate the concept that life goes on after death.
Throughout civilization’s development, humans have learned the nature of the world we live in. We’ve come to learn that life occurs, grows, ends and regenerates, much like we’ve seen in plants and our other surroundings. This has familiarized us with the concept of life, it’s cycle, and the cohesion it has with the way our world works. We have also recognized ourselves in this natural pattern, understanding that humans as well, follow this cycle of life.
The motif of rebirth can be found extensively throughout human history and art. It can be identified in nearly every belief system, and continues to be prominent in modern religion. Throughout the development of humankind, we have expressed our perception of the notion of life and what it means to be reborn, often seen in the results of our mythologic and philosophic expressions.
Rebirth In Ancient Art
Human history has long considered the concept of rebirth as a cycle, in which an entity goes through the processes of life only to start again.
An excellent example of this is the use of the phoenix in ancient art. Encompassing a mythological bird with a colorful array of feathers and a tail, the phoenix has long been used as a visual representation of the idea of rebirth. Although stemming from a Greek term, the concept of the phoenix is one that has been widely integrated in the world’s cultural history, found throughout China, Tibet, Japan, Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Dumbledore’s Phoenix and the Medieval Bestiary 
It is said that at the time of its death, this mythological avian constructs a nest around itself, which then combusts into flames. The bird proceeds to burn and die, leaving nothing to remain but its ashes. From this point, a baby phoenix rises from its past ashes, and continues life in a new form. This is considered to be an endless cyclical pattern and has long been referred to as a way in which the process of life and rebirth is often perceived.
The rebirth motif is prevalent throughout human history in forms other than the phoenix, notably in pieces of Renaissance and revolution. Other conveyances of the concept of rebirth can be found in ancient Egypt’s lotus flower, the Celtic Triskele and Mesopotamia’s Inanna.
From left to right: Celtic Triskele , Lotus flower in Ancient Egypt , Pharanic lotus flower , Inanna 
A Modern Take On Rebirth
In the depiction of the rebirth motif in modern art, these symbols remain prominent, mainly for their cultural significance. In many ways, contemporary artists have also adapted these traditional designs into styles that better align with our times, such as through the simplification of the phoenix’s design. Societal developments have also given rise to new depictions of the concept of rebirth, such as through the use of arrows in modern symbols. A great example of this is the recycling symbol, which while originally intended to convey the process of recycling, has become a universal archetype for the process of renewal.
Similarly, the concept of rebirth has also been something not only conveyed, but called for in modern street art. In fact, one of the most common forms you’ll find it in today’s society is through activism and demands for reform, as seen here.
Artist unknown, “Rebirth” by Gregg Valley (Carnegie, PA), “Rebirth” by Ernesto Maranje (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
A powerful symbol representing hope in our communities
Charles Hausmann always loved the neighborhood he grew up in, but — over time — noticed its deterioration. As soon as he was able, he purchased a building in the area with the intention of contributing to the community’s revitalization. He soon commissioned his stepdaughter, Kate Madigan, to paint a mural on the side of the building of a phoenix rising from the ashes, which they believed represented what the neighborhood needed to do to make a come back.
“The phoenix is a symbol of rebirth, renewal and the ability to overcome obstacles,” says Madigan. Hausmann and Madigan believed it was not only a message to the neighborhood, but it was an important symbol of their personal lives, too. “We chose the phoenix to reassure ourselves that we would be able to thrive, be happy, successful and continue to help others to the best of our ability despite all that life throws at us,” says Madigan.
Milwaukee pheonix mural by Kate Madigan 
Applying Learnings From This Motif In Our Own Lives
We can learn a great deal from analyzing how this motif (and the various forms it takes) is utilized in both ancient and modern art, especially in efforts to understand the different perceptions of the cyclical nature of life. Through these learnings, we can develop stronger understandings of communities and the ways in which they conceptualize birth, rebirth, and life itself. Aiming to understand how different cultures and societies view the concept of rebirth and immortality helps us to understand our own belief systems in relation to theirs.
Through the interpretation of the rebirth motif in community art, we are better able to comprehend a population’s outlook on reality, what it means to them, and how we can best connect on rebirth and renewal.
Paint the World is a 501(c)3 aiming to shift the paradigm potential of the arts. To learn more about Paint the World’s mission and impact to date, click here. To learn more about Paint the World’s Symbols Series, click here.
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