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.
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.
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.