Art Term


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.

Unknown artist, Britain, ‘An Allegory of Man’ 1596 or after
Unknown artist, Britain
An Allegory of Man 1596 or after

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.

related terms and concepts

  • Narrative

    Narrative art is art that tells a story

  • Symbolism

    Late nineteenth-century movement that advocated the expression of an idea over the realistic description of the natural world

  • History painting

    The term history painting was introduced in the seventeenth century to describe paintings with subject matter drawn from classical history ...

selected artists in the collection

selected artworks in the collection