Allegory in art is when the subject of the artwork, or the various elements that form the composition, is used to symbolize a deeper moral or spiritual meaning such as life, death, love, virtue, justice etc.

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  • British School 16th century, 'An Allegory of Man' 1596 or after
    British School 16th century
    An Allegory of Man 1596 or after
    Oil on wood
    support: 570 x 514 mm
    Presented by the Patrons of British Art 1990
  • Sir Thomas Monnington, 'Allegory' circa 1924
    Sir Thomas Monnington
    Allegory circa 1924
    Egg tempera on canvas
    support: 1257 x 2768 mm
    Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1939© The estate of Sir Thomas Monnington
  • Bruce Nauman, 'Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor)' 1999
    Bruce Nauman
    Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor) 1999
    Single channel video, colour, stereo sound, 4:3, NTSC.
    duration: 59min, 18sec
    Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
  • Sarah Lucas Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab 1992
    Sarah Lucas
    Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab 1992

Allegory has been used widely throughout the histories of all forms of art; a major reason for this is its immense power to illustrate complex ideas and concepts in ways that are easily digestible and tangible to its viewers, readers, or listeners.

In relation to modern art, allegory is when one narrative might mean another, something that was first proposed in Craig Owen’s book The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism. An example of this use of allegory would be Sarah Lucas’s Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab 1992 in which food is a signifier of sexual politics. Owens argues that artists who use allegory are revealing how objects can hold not one, but many meanings.