The Iconologia: Helping Art Students Understand Allegory

By Venable, Bradford | Art Education, May 2008 | Go to article overview

The Iconologia: Helping Art Students Understand Allegory


Venable, Bradford, Art Education


These images are the Representatives of our Notions; they properly belong to Painters, who by Colours and Shadowing, have invented the admirable Secret to give Body to our Thoughts, thereby to render them visible.

-Peirce Tempest, issue of the first English edition of Cesare Ripa's Iconologia or Moral Emblems, in his foreword to the reader (1709, p. i).

This article focuses on helping students understand allegory through the investigation of images and text revealed in Johann Georg Hertel's translation of Cesare Ripa's manuscript, Iconologia (1971). It first explores Ripa's background and the importance of his volume that describes allegorical themes. Then, the organization of Hertel's 18th-century edition is discussed and exemplified using the allegory, Justice. The sections that follow outline classroom activities to guide students to understand of allegory more fully and appreciate its presence in historic and current works of art, as well as in visual culture. Included is an in-depth research component, which again is exemplified through Justice and the historic development of her individual symbols and attributes. Finally, art production activities are proposed. These offer students an opportunity to create allegorical artworks reflecting their own interests and lives. The study of allegory as presented here is relevant to the K- 12 art educator's classroom practice. It is standards-based and offers opportunities for student learning across disciplines, including goals and objectives in language arts and social studies, in particular units on the Renaissance, ancient Egypt, and Greece.

Allegory is defined as "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence" (Merriam-Webster online, 2005). Such generalizations typically relate to morality, religion, or politics. For example, the Iconologia describes allegorical themes such as Logic, Decency, Flattery, and Jealousy. Ripa's text (1971) serves not only as a practical and meaningful tool in the interpretation and analysis of significant images of the past and present, but also as a springboard to more complex and innovative imagery.

The study of allegory may appear out of place in traditional art curriculum; however, a cursory look at the subject matter that interests young people may prove otherwise. Students latch onto popular cultural symbols and images with obstinate enthusiasm. Students draw them repeatedly in the margins of their notebooks and introduce them as subject matter in drawing assignments. Often, their dragons, monsters, fairies, and sword-wielding superheroes are inspired by the computer games, fantasy, science fiction, and horror themes that pervade our visual culture. As enticing as popular cultural icons are, students generally do not realize that many have evolved from historic roots, and discovering these connections to the past can enlighten those who doggedly hang onto the "original" fantasy figures of Sony Playstation*, Marvel Comics", and film industry's Industrial Light and Magic(TM). Researching the origins of these and other symbolic images may bring a greater appreciation and depth of understanding of how popular images evolved.

Student use and understanding of allegory is important from several perspectives. From an art historical point of view, allegorical themes frame many important artworks, particularly those of the Renaissance. Additionally, skills are developed as students discover the subtle symbols, metaphors, and personifications within these works. Allegorical themes are especially relevant to curriculum trends that develop units of instruction around enduring themes such as war, death, poverty, or justice (see Daniel, Stuhr, & Ballengee-Morris, 2006; Stewart & Walker, 2005; Roberts, 2005; Walker, 2004; Walling, 2006). Like these big ideas, allegory relates well to contemporary culture, motivating art activity that allows for a "discourse on morality and social criticism, [and] giving students points of reference for making choices in a world of competing ideologies, claims and interests" (Anderson & Milbrandt, 2004, p. …

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