Allegory in Art history

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro.

In the previous videos it often happened to talk about allegories and it will happen again in the future. If they are so frequently used by a lot of artists inside even completely different art styles, probably they are really important.

And actually they are since if I ask you to draw the idea of love or fortune, how would you do that? Well allegories allow artists to represent an abstract concept with a visual representation.

Don’t worry if this sounds a bit confusing right now. We are going to see many examples soon that will clarify the concept. First, if you are new on the channel, whenever you see a blue word remember that it’s linked to the glossary on this website where you can read all the definitions you need and learn more about art thanks to useful examples.

Allegory: meaning

Back to our allegories, what does this word mean?

Allegory is used in art to portray an abstract concept or idea or feeling representing it as a tangible subject, usually a human figure.

One of the most common examples is for sure the allegory of the death depicted in movies, books, cartoons as the Grim Reaper: a berobed skeleton wielding a scythe.

Grim Reaper statue

Examples of allegories

As you can see, thanks to this character that we immediately identify, the artist is able to represent a concept, like death, inside a more complex work of art.

Another common example in art is the idea of fortune. Usually represented with her eyes covered holding the horn of plenty, or Cornucopia, in an upright position. Here the Italian painter Salvator Rosa painted a satirical version with the goddess pouring her gifts on an array of undeserving animals. It was a satirical attack on Pope Alexander VII and Rosa got almost jailed and excommunicated for this.

Salvator Rosa - Allegory of Fortune

Another famous example? The Statue of Liberty. The idea of liberty is personified into this famous lady and, a few years before her, Eugène Delacroix painted the Liberty Leading the People. However, this allegory is even older: we have to go back to Romans with Libertas, a goddess and personification of liberty.

Liberty Leading the People, Eugene Delacroix - Romanticism
Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People

Who “invented” allegories?

But who invented the allegories? It’s probably more correct to say who first used them. And it’s really hard to say, first because they are present in many cultures and second because we have to go really back in time.

In Western culture some of the first examples are traceable back to Homer with the narrative personifications of Terror (Deimos) and Fear (Phobos). And Greek mythology is for sure a good resource of allegories. Among them, the god of desire and attraction, Cupid, that became the symbol of love himself as we found out in one of my previous videos (you can find all these references in the description).

However, it’s for sure during the Medieval time that allegories started to be massively used. The reason was mostly because just a small percentage of people could read and so it was fundamental to use effective images.

And one of the best examples are the extraordinary series of frescoes painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between February 1338 and May 1339 called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti - Good govern

Deep meanings

The paintings are literally filled with allegorical characters. First of all, it’s clear the use of hierarchical proportions with the smaller figures, the citizens, who stand in front of the virtues: the bigger figures. Each of them is identified by a text (just to be sure who could read won’t fake to confuse their meanings), but by clear symbols too. We can identify the Peace (Pax in latin) with an olive branch, the Temperance (Temperantia in latin) who is holding an hourglass or the Justice (Iustitia) who just cut a head with her sword, not of a normal citizen, but a king’s head since she is still holding his crown.

This undisputed masterpiece is in fact located in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico not by chance, but because it had to remind the Nine magistrates, elected officials who performed executive functions for a limited period of time, the importance of their decisions on the population and the city. And the Justice is there to remind what it could happen if they mess up. It was a nice Medieval style pragmatic message.

And look how the figure of Justice is repeated on the left as she is balancing the scales. Nowadays we still represent her like that: holding a scale, with a sword, often blindfolded. But in the Middle ages it was believed she was inspired by Wisdom who, guess what, is another allegory as well: in the shape of an angel that represents God’s judgment.


And we can identify allegories in many many other works of art. It happened even in the previous post with the Fountain of the 4 rivers, but during our journey we’ll see more examples. So I hope this will help, let me know in the comments and please share to support this free art project.

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