What Is the Function of Allegory in Art?

Pablo Garcia

Allegory in art refers to visual work in which the literal work, such as the figures in a painting, stand for an idea which suggests a deeper or parallel meaning. The word allegory is derived from the Greek words meaning “other” and “to speak in public.” The meaning of the allegory is sometimes communicated through the use of symbolic figures or other symbols. The associations of the allegorical figures or symbols with other elements in the work occur in the mind of the viewer and convey a meaning beyond the literal representation.

Neptune was often used to represent the sea in Greco-Roman myth.
Neptune was often used to represent the sea in Greco-Roman myth.

Allegory is used often in artistic representation. There are commonly used allegorical symbols such as statues of “Justice.” The abstract idea is portrayed by a robed woman. She is blindfolded, symbolizing impartiality and justice for anyone seeking it. She holds a pair of scales, indicating that justice entails weighing the facts and evidence to reach a fair conclusion.

Lady Justice is often depicted with a blindfold and a pair of scales, representing impartiality and justice.
Lady Justice is often depicted with a blindfold and a pair of scales, representing impartiality and justice.

Figures from Greco-Roman mythology are often used for allegory in art. Mercury is used to symbolize speed, Venus to depict love, or Neptune, the sea. Sometimes mythological figures are the only symbols in a painting and are used to express an idea or tell a story. In his painting “La Primavera,” Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli used various Greek gods, goddesses and nymphs to depict the coming of spring.

German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” is a notable example of allegory in art and is still being studied and reinterpreted today. It is generally interpreted as being about the melancholy that can strike the artist, in whom imagination is more important than reason. Unused tools of architecture and geometry surround the figure of a woman with a sad expression on her face. The winged figure of genius sits next to her and looks despondent. Whole books have been written about many symbols of alchemy in the painting and their possible meanings.

Allegory in art has a very long history. In the 1600s, Italian author Cesare Ripa compiled his Iconologica, which listed all the all the different allegorical symbols. Many painters during the Renaissance used his work as a reference for their paintings.

There are even specific symbols for artists’ self-portraits. A pendant mask around the artist’s neck symbolizes the imitation of life. Unruly hair shows the frenzy of artistic creation. A strip of cloth somewhere in the painting denotes that means of the artist’s expression is the brush, and the mouth is bound silent.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - That particular panel on the Chapel ceiling is known as "The Creation of Adam" and the whole thing is mysterious and full of allegory.

For example we don't know for sure the identities of all the other people around God. They could just be random angels, or maybe Eve, or the personification of the soul, or any number of things.

The fact that Adam and God have mirrored postures is supposed to be a reminder that Adam was made in God's likeness.

And while it's a popular theory that the shape around God is supposed to be a brain, there are some who think it could actually be a womb, as it roughly matches up to that as well.

While it's fun to speculate, I don't think we will ever know for sure what was exactly intended.


@indigomoth - I'm sure you're right about some paintings, maybe they are just random.

But when you think about how long it actually took to make an oil painting, particularly back in the day when allegory was particularly popular, you can see why the painters seemed to take the placing of every object extremely seriously and probably did try to give the painting a deeper meaning with this.

And people are still discovering or figuring out amazing things about older paintings.

The famous scene of God reaching out to Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is ones of my favorites for this.

If you look at the ribbons God is sitting on, it is actually incredibly similar to the shape of a human brain, down to sections and the brain stem.

Now, Michelangelo had a very good knowledge of human bodies. He must have done this on purpose. But, what a mysterious act of symbolism to put god floating on a human brain.

I think it's something well worth noticing and even debating over.


I wonder if the artists themselves always knew what they intended with the symbols they left in their work. People always seem to look at paintings with a bunch of known symbols and try to put them together as though they can create a narrative.

Maybe the artist just picked all the symbols of love that he knew and just threw them in there, rather than carefully picking out this one and putting it on the table to symbolize something else and so forth. I mean, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I'm not saying this is always true but people seem to tie themselves up in knots over interpretations of obscure paintings and I feel like if the meaning isn't quite obvious it's more likely there isn't a deeper meaning.

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