Week 5: In search of allegory - The National Gallery
A report by Karen Blake

Visit to National Gallery, 6.11.09

Our second visit to the National Gallery focused on allegory. Group 1 was led by Karly Allen from the National Gallery.

Allegory was defined as a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons and actions in a narrative are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social religious or political significance and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed, or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.

We looked at four works which were illustrative of different types of allegory.

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The first, A young Man and Woman making Music by Jan Molenaer (c1630-32) showed a young well-to-do couple playing instruments. In the room as well, were an older woman working in the background and a dog lying at the skirts of the young woman. The young woman had kicked off one of her slippers and her red stockinged foot was resting on a wooden foot warmer, a symbol of availability to the man. Ostensibly the subject of the painting was a simple domestic portrait. However, the clues in the picture tell an additional story of a harmonious couple (through music making), physical unity (the clues of sexual relations) and obedience (the dog to the mistress and the mistress seated beneath her husband or lover).

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The second painting was Peter Paul Rubens’ Minerva protects Pax from Mars ('Peace and War'), 1629-30. Rubens painted this in London and gave the painting to Charles I. The scene is loosely based on the gods and in particular, the naked goddess Pax , spotlit in the centre, surrounded by others, with a leopard lying in the foreground. Three clothed girls join the scene. In the background, set against a stormy sky, a female warrior in armour (Minerva) is fighting Mars, also clad in armour.

Food, fruit, milk, a cornucopia, the leopard with its luscious fur, all speak of abundance and sensual pleasures. The background fighting set against the storm indicates threat. These allegorical references carry a diplomatic communiqué: make peace not war or risk life and comfort and pleasure.

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The third painting was Correggio’s Venus with Mercury and Cupid ('The School of Love')

(1525) and it is one of a pair. It depicts Cupid who is being tutored by Mercury while Venus, Cupid’s mother, looks on. Venus is looking up as if to invite the viewer to join in the family scene. The message that a sixteenth century viewer might well have read into this scene is that when it comes to love, Mercury’s sense of discipline and order is an attribute worthy of study by Cupid, while recklessness in love, characterised by Venus, is unlikely to make for happy family life.

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The final painting we looked at was Boy bitten by a Lizard, painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1595-60. There is a debate about whether this is actually an allegory. There are two or three possible allegorical meanings worth considering. Quite possibly the scene where the boy is recoiling in anguish is an allegory of the sense of touch. Caravaggio’s story tells of the pain the boy feels when the lizard bits his finger as he samples a grape. The finger symbolises touch as does pain. Caravaggio also emphasises the boy’s clothing slipping from his shoulder, the smoothness of the boy’s skin, the transparent light of the water. Another possible allegorical interpretation is that pleasure and pain are both to be found in (illicit) sexual and human relations. Whether or not the painting is an allegory it manages to convey a powerful sense of horror and communicate to contemporary audiences, accustomed to the drama and scene setting of contemporary film.

In four paintings we saw four types of allegory, in the Dutch painting this was of domestic harmony, in Ruben’s painting the allegory was of peace and war, Correggio’s was pointing to love with rules and Carravaggio may have been alluding to touch or to love and pain.

Artists in this period were frequently expected to illustrate the chosen message of their patron. There is a question to answer about whether allegory has much relevance today. Within advertising you can find the use of allegory, for instance Interflora’s use of Mercury clutching a bunch of flowers which he rushes to deliver in its logo (http://www.interflora.co.uk;).

However generally, allegory probably doesn’t carry much weight with contemporary artists and audiences, not least because today we would be unlikely to accept prescriptive messages. Contemporary artists, for instance Gilbert and George, might be more likely to turn to metaphor than allegory. Another example is this year’s Turner Prize contender, Roger Hiorns who uses materials in metaphorical ways. http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize/turnerprize2009/artists/hiorns.shtm;

Karen Blake, 10/11/09