The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

Master Impressions from the UAMA Collections: Allegory

Jan van Vianen Cornelis Tromp (Allegorical Portrait as Neptune), c. 1700

February 5, 2009 – July 12, 2009

Defined as a means of expressing abstract ideas through a combination of symbols and personifications in an extended metaphor, allegory was developed by the philosophers and writers of Classical antiquity. The word derives from the Greek term allegoria — “to speak of something under the guise of something else.” In fine art, the objects, persons, and actions depicted refer to meanings (whether moral, social, religious, or political) beyond the literal, figurative representation.

Although rooted in Greco-Roman antiquity, allegory became a powerful mode of religious expression during the Middle Ages. Pope Adrian I (772-95 AD) promoted the use of allegory in order “to show the invisible through the visible,” to express complicated spiritual concepts through the comprehensible material world, and artists developed a complex iconography to represent Christian notions of vice, virtue, salvation, death, and resurrection. During the Northern European Renaissance, artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder continued to draw from medieval allegorical conventions for his famed series the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. (Pieter van der Heyden’s engraving Superbia (Pride), after Pieter Bruegel’s design, is on exhibit.)

Secular and political allegories during the medieval period often involved figurations of Justice, Injustice, Peace, Fortune, time, and the seasons, but Renaissance and Baroque art revitalized such allegories with a renewed interest in Classical conventions and myth. Frequently, artists combined stories and figures from antiquity with the Christian allegorical tradition, as in Matthaus Greuter’s engraving after Wendel Dietterlin the Elder’s Power of Venus: Allegory of Lust and Purity. In addition, mythological motifs were used in self-aggrandizing allegorical personifications of political figures, as in the case of Jan van Vianen’s Cornelis Tromp (Allegorical Portrait as Neptune).

By the late eighteenth century, the use of allegory waned as it was subjected to both aesthetic and philosophical critique. Even so, illustrations like William Blake’s Europe Supported by Africa and America made use of allegorical personification to represent dense political relationships in simplified (and perhaps ironically romanticized) visual terms.

– Susannah Maurer, Assistant Curator

Master Impressions from the UAMA Collections

This series of small, rotating presentations showcases the exceptional breadth and depth of the UAMA Old Master print collection. These selections offer focused consideration of a particularly significant artist or theme, and elucidate some of the most influential developments in the Western printmaking tradition.

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Master Impressions from the UAMA Collections