The function of allegory in painting is to represent a chosen message using symbolic items or figures and metaphors. Allegory in the context of painted artworks is a direct substitution of one symbol with another, but one that alludes to the same message or story. Often the meaning is held outside of the painting through a deep study of the artwork itself.
The word ‘allegory’ comes from the classical Latin and Greek word ‘allegoria,’ meaning a ‘veiled language’ or something ‘figurative.’ Allegory is most widely-known as a literary device used in fiction. A classical allegory is Virgil’s “Eclogues,” while a more modern version is George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Sometimes critics find hints of allegory where the author or painter has no intention of providing such hints; an example of this is with J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” which some see as an allegory for the atomic bomb and World War 2.
Cicero saw allegory as a means of coding letters. Quintilian, meanwhile, believed there were two types of allegory. First, there was the personal or historical allegory using metaphors, and secondly, there was wit and sarcasm. Quintilian believed allegories that are too vague to discern were a blemish on art and literature.
Medieval painters and writers believed there were four basic functions for allegory in painting and literature; all revolved around the bible. First, there was the literal representation that had no hidden meaning or subtext. Second, there were typographical allegories that linked the Old Testament with the New. Third, there were moral allegories that instructed present day conduct. Finally, there were anagogical allegories that looked to future events such as hell, heaven and the last judgment.
Dutch painter Jan Vermeer is a good example of the use of allegory in painting. His work entitled “The Allegory of Painting” features three allegories, each serving a number of functions. First, he represents inspiration and muses through the presence of Clio. Second, he produces an allegory of the history of the Netherlands and Belgium by introducing a crease between them on the map. This shows the difference between free and Protestant Netherlands and the Catholic, but dominated, Belgium. Finally, he connects present-day artists with those of the past by depicting himself wearing anachronistic clothing.
Agnolo Bronzino is another example of the use of allegory in painting. One good example is his 1546 piece called “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.” Some of the allegories are easy to discern such as Father Time, Cupid and Venus. Others, like the old lady tearing at her hair, are open to discussion.
Sandro Botticelli proved with his “Primavera” in 1482 that an allegory in painting can work on multiple levels. The painting is overtly an allegory about spring, and then more subtly, it is about how the world became more fertile. The deep subtext of the painting appears to revolve around neoplatonic love, as shown by the Graces appearing to renounce Zephyrus.