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An Allegory of Man

Uncover the symbolism hidden in this 400-year-old painting

Allegory of Man was painted over 400 years ago by an unknown artist. Like most religious paintings, it is packed with symbolism. Watch this film to discover the meaning behind the objects and characters depicted in this panel.

This artwork is one of the few religious British paintings to have survived the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Protestant unease towards religious images made it difficult to display works like these. This opposition against iconography or the use of images to depict religious figures is known as ‘aniconism’.

Transcription

This painting is something of a mystery.

It is called An Allegory of Man, and we know it was painted on wood sometime around 1596.

What we don’t know is who made it, or why?

But we do know it was painted in secret.

This is because of the Reformation, when the English church broke with Rome. After that it was not permitted to display religious images.

So, the painting must have been made surreptitiously, possibly for a devotional chamber where a person could worship in private.

It is glazed in a brilliant translucent green copper resinate, which would have looked almost jewel-like in the flickering candlelight

This suggests it was commissioned by a wealthy client.

But what is it about?

Well, the main inscription is a warning.

It tells of how our souls are in peril from the seven deadly sins.

The central figure is a soldier (possibly our wealthy client) and he is being tempted on all sides by vice.

On the left is a magnificently dressed woman, who aims her bow at him.

Each arrow has a title:

Gluttony

Sloth

And Lechery

Around her waist is a belt of precious stones and an hourglass which alludes to the time wasted from idleness.

Beneath her is a miser and he is aiming an arrow of Covetousness.

We know he is a miser because on the desk there are coins, purses and an accounting book

Emerging from the flames of hell, is the Devil.

He has the sins of

Pride

Wrath

And Envy in his bow.

The skeleton is Death and he has a spear ready to pierce his victim’s heart.

But leaning down is an angel who is investing the soldier with a shield of Christian virtues.

These virtues are written on a long scroll that wraps itself protectively around the man.

Above are 12 angels, a perfect number in theology, symbolising God’s power and authority.

At the top of the painting is the figure of Christ

A scroll bears his words, and they succinctly sum up the picture:

BE SOBER & WATCH, FOR THOW KNOWEST NEITHER THE DAY NOR THE HOUR

In other words, be good, because you don’t know when death might come and get you.

find out more

Essay

An Allegory of Man 1596: By British School 16th Century

Rica Jones and Joyce H. Townsend

Read technical information about this painting resulting from examination and scientific analysis by conservators and conservation scientists at Tate

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