Jan Vermeer - Painter in his Studio or The Allegory of Painting, 1666

How do artists represent ideas? What kind of visual language might be required to personify abstract concepts like Love, Courage, Chastity and Wisdom? When you see a picture of an old man wearing a cloak and carrying an enormous scythe, what do you immediately think?

Allegory is the term used to describe a figurative (non literal) mode of representation that employs symbols and personification. This strategy has been used since classical times to represent complex, abstract ideas in literary and visual forms. Medieval art is full of allegorical content. Surface reality and symbolic meaning exist simultaneously. The rediscovery of classical culture in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy led to numerous allegorical works drawing on classical mythology, as well as biblical stories. Artists referred to encyclopedia of allegory in order to ensure that their imagery suggested the right combination of allegorical meanings. By the 17th century, extremely sophisticated messages could be conveyed by talented artists using a combination of established allegorical symbols and more contemporary references.

Take a close look at Vermeer's painting above. Before you head off to do some research, make a list of the visual symbols you think you can see. Is it possible to differentiate between the literal and the symbolic? The checkered tile floor is a brilliant device for conveying spacial depth and perspective. The map of the Netherlands on the back wall provides the artist with an opportunity to display his virtuoso skills of representation with wonderfully subtle passages of pattern, light and texture. How do we know that the curtain in the foreground is heavy and that light is flooding in through the window behind it? There is a great deal of sensual pleasure to be experienced by looking at this work of art. However, there is clearly much to stimulate the imagination and intellect too. The study of the content and subject matter of works of art (as distinct from their formal properties) is called Iconography.

In what sense is painting an idea? How has this idea been represented? Which objects and characters in the painting might carry symbolic significance (in addition to doing other duties like creating space, casting shadows and reflecting light)? The vast majority of allegorical works of art refer to either ancient classical mythology or religious stories and concepts. This painting is a notable exception and, therefore, an interesting one with which to begin an exploration of the uses of allegory.


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