Allegorical Scenes in Painting

11,377 artworks, 2,127 artists
Allegory (anc. gr. ἀλληγορία — “allegory”, “speak differently”) is a pictorial technique, which helps artists to deliver a broader message to their works. The artists hide the main idea from a straightforward perception enclosing it in vivid images.

Since the very beginning of painting, artists have come up with a system of symbols, which resulted in an allegorical language of fine art. In times of totalitarian rulers or ideological pressure, this allowed the painters to criticize power, religion, specific people or social phenomena without fear for their life or creative freedom. In this case, artists filled their works with symbols that were only understandable to a limited number of people and required a deep knowledge of the allegorical language. In times of freedom and support for artists, viewers enjoyed the master’s ability to select an unexpected and memorable symbolic image, achieving the meaningful depth of the work.

Allegorical scenes and symbols contain genre, historical and mythological painting, landscapes, portraits, caricatures and even still lifes; the depicted subject loses its everyday meaning and becomes allegorical. The artist is free to choose the number of the symbols and the method of their implementation into his/her allegorical narrative: in substantive, subjective or figurative way. Thus, a woman with a set of scales in her hands symbolizes Lady Justice, an hourglass indicates loss of time, and finding fleas on the body means spiritual repentance. The viewer may interpret individual symbols one way or another, but the meanings add up to a holistic picture and an unambiguous idea.

Great artists often used allegories. Allegorical scenes can be seen on the canvases of the Renaissance artists, in the mannerist paintings, Baroque and classicism. Throughout the 19th century, allegories acquired a political accent, and in the 20th century, symbolism arose as a separate trend in the visual arts.

The examples of the paintings that contain allegorical scenes: “Death and the Miser” 1491 by Hieronymus Bosch; “Hay Wagon” 1515, “Abundance” 1525 by Jan Brueghel the Younger; “Liberty Leading the People” 1830 by Eugène Delacroix; “The Apotheosis of War” 1871 Vasily Vereshchagin; “War or the Ride of Discord” 1894 by Henri Rousseau; “The Heart of the Matter” 1928 René Magritte.

The artists who used allegorical scenes in their works: Hieronymus Bosch, Anthony van Dyck, Eugène Delacroix, Peter Paul Rubens, René Magritte, Otto Dix.