Rooted deep within us, storytelling is one of the basics of human nature. Traditionally, first sketches or paintings were created as forms of a visual language, to help convey religious or political views and as such needed to be to the point and fairly easy to understand. On the other hand, it is often said, that a tale is more than just a tale when it is an allegory. For this reason, use of an allegory in art is quite possibly one of the most interesting topics for art historians and for the eager audience. It is the source of marvelous allegorical paintings which are full of elements that stand for something else and in the end create an extended metaphor. The need to view the world in a way that transcends logical, physical or material prompted various authors to arrange the elements of their productions, forming works with hidden messages. Allegorical paintings veil the message only to make the point more powerful and this allowed artists to create an elaborate world of narratives and to play with the world of symbols.
Allegory derives from the Latin word allegoria that is taken from the Greek word which means veiled language. Could there be a more illustrative way than the idea of a masked language to help us better understand what is allegorical art? Employed across an array of creative spheres, in literature where it takes form in a shape of fable, parables, poetry, or short stories with a specific narrative in mind, allegory differs from the world of symbols and symbolism. Unlike the symbol, where one object, figure, or design stand for something else, allegories in paintings employ different elements to tell another tale then the one presented by the artists. What do we mean? Take for example the famous painting by the Italian master Sandro Botticelli Primavera. Described through history as one of the most talked about examples of tempera panel painting, it is one of the most celebrated illustrations of an allegorical and mythological image. Referencing various classical and contemporary texts, it is open to endless interpretations by scholars and art historians. One of the most frequent readings explains the group of mythological figures in the nature setting to represent the idea of the birth of spring, while some suggest that the work stands as a metaphor for the idea of a Neoplatonic love. Many of you may wonder how is this possible, and would feel satisfied that they witnessed a skillful approach to figure painting, while some of you may wonder what else hides in the central Venus figure standing underneath her arch? It is about this urge to explore all the elements, which build the composition; it is in the search for a new meaning that the beauty of allegory is unveiled.
A truly fascinating fact about allegory is this - it has the ability to freeze the temporality of a message. For those who love a good tale and are always in search of a message, this might sound like a challenge. Sometimes, the rich symbolism of a certain figure, flower, or another element that builds the composition, escapes us due to the concept of the passing of time. In such instances, without a help from a scholar, deeper moral and spiritual meanings are left out of reach.
In the beginning, especially during the classical and the medieval times, allegorical paintings referenced Biblical tales and employed a range of religious symbols. The sheep, the dove, the flower, the ray of light, all of these could be employed to tell the tale of the birth of Christ, or the scene of the Annunciation, even if the figures in the painting were occupying a home-setting, like is the case with Robert Campin’s painting Madonna and Child Before a Fireplace. Here, the positioning of the bodies and the color of the robe implies the two figures from religious texts. This of course is the undercurrent of the painted image which is hidden through the female figure, the setting she occupies and the world outside her window.
As art progressed and turned towards abstraction, many artists, such as Marcel Duchamp for instance, used symbols, images, shapes, or materials which put together represented a philosophical and a spiritual idea. His elaborate Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, created on two large glass panels, is an elaborate tale of male and female principles, unique rules of physics, and mathematics. Some critics see it as a representation of the male and female desire, while some describe it to represent a machine for suffering.
Contemporary art today is truly an eclectic arena and as such allows for a variety of different approaches and styles. As the periods and civilization shift, the visual language today rarely uses such strong religious reference, yet there is a great number of examples of artists using the everyday objects to reflect on present pressing issues. British artist Sarah Lucasis one such author that uses sculpture and installations to promote allegory in art. For Lucas, the use of allegory reveals how one object can hold more than one meaning. In her work Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, she uses food to speak about the sexual politics. It is this shift of the subject matter, making us realize that the principle of the use of allegory will always remain the same.
In the end, allegory employs different subject matters of the artworks and the various elements that form the compositions to reflect deeper moral, spiritual, political meanings and to speak about life, death, love, virtue, and justice. Often, the only message and moral we all hear or acknowledge is the one that is not a violent reminder, but the one that allows us to read it as we may see fit.
Allegorical paintings shifted throughout the various art movements. In the classical period, gods, goddesses, and mythological figures were used to suggest new narratives, while Surrealism referenced the unconscious and turned to non-figuration. This book is an excellent guide as it provides the reader with tools necessary to better read the hidden messages of celebrated works. The visit to a museum or a gallery upon reading this book would be a completely new experience. Taking you through antiquity, Renaissance art, Symbolism, Surrealism, and other celebrated periods, various artworks are analyzed, and various symbols are deciphered. For anyone wanting to find out what does the black veil stand for in Renaissance art or what is the meaning of a certain god, this book is truly a must-have.
All images used for illustrative purposes only: Featured image in slider: Antonio de-Pereda – Allegory of Vanity. Image via Wikimedia.org; Thomas Cole – The Voyage of Life. Image via Wikimedia.org; Francisco Goya – Truth Rescued by Time. Image via bestofpainting.com
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In 1550, the Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari published the most important guide on lives of the artists that is still relevant today.