Circles and spheres
The meaning of gestures may even vary within cultures. Take for example the circle formed by the thumb and forefinger of one hand. This may either mean something like “A-OK,” that isn’t all is well, or it may be a goose egg, an indicator of nullity. Thus when a student emerges after an examination flashing this gesture, the student’s friends can only interpret it by the supplementary information supplied by the examinee's face. Accompanied by a big smile, it means, “I aced it.” Accompanied by a frown, it indicates failure.
During the Renaissance the circle generally conveyed the first meaning, that of perfection. A Renaissance tondo, such as the one comprising Raphael’s "Madonna della Sedia," seems to complement the holiness of the figures. The domes of central plan buildings have a similar effect. For centuries it was assumed that the planets must move in circular orbits. It was only Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century who proved that their orbits are parabolic ellipses.
Yet the other meaning hovered in the background, attested by the version of Arabic numerals adopted in Western Europe in which the circular figure represents zero.
We turn now to the sphere. During the Middle Ages a special sphere, the orb, was an item of imperial regalia, signifying universal domination.
An early enigmatic version of the sphere appears in Dürer’s “Melancholia I “ of 1514. In Jacques De Gheyn’s “Vanitas” (Lucie-Smith, Symbolist Art, pl. 11), the bubbles rising on the left signify transience. Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s bubbles provide a more playful version.
Ambiguity inheres in the circles and spheres found in Symbolist paintings. In the work of Odilon Redon circles appear in various guises: a well, the sun, a bull’s eye window. Circles, some elongated into ovals, sometimes constitute a kind of simulated opening in the surface out of which enigmatic heads project or peer out. Redon’s spheres are generally mysterious. In some instances he qualifies them to produce eyeballs or balloons. Elongated they form egg-like shapes, and these can be modified with human features so as to produce severed heads.
A prominent circle dominates the background of the signature work of Fernand Khnopf, “I Lock My Door Upon Myself.”
Turning to abstract work, circles, either complete or segments of them are major features of the Orphic work of Robert Delaunay. A connection with scientific theory is implied by “Disks of Newton” (1911-12), an important painting by Kupka. The later, hard-edge work of Vassily Kandinsky is replete with circles.