Allegory in Art

Helping Children Bridge the Fact/Value Split

This painting is part of the beautiful collection of Dutch golden-age paintings at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. Not only is it lovely, it’s allegorical.

Allegorical paintings are my favorite pieces in any museum. They do something daring! They bridge the chasm between the physical and non-physical world without apology. They cry out from the walls: There’s more to life than meets the eye! This physical world is not all that exists!

Allegorical paintings have hidden meaning, making them visual puzzles. Solving an allegorical work depends upon having a repertoire of historical and literary knowledge, which few modern viewers have, as our public education system abandoned the classics long ago. Thankfully, the information panels usually provide some minimal information, at least enough to begin research online.

Are you ready to solve an allegorical painting?

At first glance, each distinct type of flower seems to be the ideal of its kind, a perfect specimen: the perfect daisy, the perfect lily, etc.

Are they truly ideal? As you look closely you’ll notice a petal of the large white lily has begun to curl ever so slightly. As your eye travels back down to the pink and white lily, you might notice that it, too, has a few petals showing early signs of wilt. Zoom back out to view the whole painting.

Carnations have fallen. Two slivers of fallen petals are seen upon the table. What first appeared to be a bouquet of brilliant freshness now appears to have seen better days. Note the yellowing of the green leaves just under the tissue-paper pink rose. The large red rose, center-right, is sharply bent at the stem.

The more we look, the more signs of deterioration we see. Our eye travels up the bouquet and we notice a lily with only one single petal remaining, while a quartet of orange flowers (what are those?) near the top droop heavily in unison. The bugs crawling around have probably done some damage, as well. You can even see the subtle yellowing of the outermost pink petals of the rose.

Have you guessed it?

This painting is an allegory of time. The artist is reminding us that life is short and our time here is as the life of a flower. The frangrant and garden-fresh “blooms of life” are quick to fade.

This is similar to the prophet Isaiah’s contrast between the temporal nature of this physical world and the eternal nature of God:

The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of God stands forever. Isaiah 40:8

Allegorical paintings have the unique ability to tie the physical and non-physical realms together. They serve as a guide for our minds to make special connections between the things we can see (flowers) and the things we cannot see (time). Both are real and both are meaningful. It is only by interacting with both worlds we can engage with the fullness of reality. We want to live in both the lower and upper story of life and enjoy the entire house of reality. For a visual aid I developed to help children understand this important concept, see “House of Truth“.

If you have children in your world who are able to draw, introducing them to allegorical paintings is a great way to expose them to fine art and bridge the fact-value split.

Here’s a sample art activity:

  1. Define and discuss the meaning of the word ‘allegory’. An allegory is a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning.
  2. Discuss a few common symbols used in allegorical art: Clock=time Books=education Owl=wisdom Dove=peace Roses=love Anchor=hope Scale=justice Lion=courage
  • Choose one or more of the symbols and talk about their meaning. Do any memories come to mind? What people/objects are in the memory? Stress that the physical object is real and the thing it symbolizes is real, too, even though we cannot see it.
  • Remind your child that this ability to create symbols for things is unique to humans. Only humans work in allegory. This is part of the rational nature God gave us when He created us in His image (Genesis 1:27). Humans have the incredible ability to connect the phyical and spiritual worlds with allegory and the history of art, among other things, reveals this.
  • Create a picture incorporating one or more allegorical symbols. Show it to family and friends and see if they can solve the puzzle!

Have fun with allegorical art!


  1. Ana Garza

    This is wonderful! Thank you! I’m going to share this article with some of my homeschool friends.

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