Understanding content in art can be difficult when we see figures in paintings that cannot be clearly identified as above, their personalities are obscure. These figures often represent abstract ideas or values in the painting. Examples are:
- Truth – A naked female holding a peach with single leaf, a sun or a mirror. She may also have her foot on a globe.
- Ignorance – A fat, unpleasant woman or hermaphrodite usually blindfolded or with no eyes, may also wear a crown.
- Innocence – a young girl holding a lamb, or maybe she is shown washing her hands
 For a comprehensive list of abstract figures, symbols and their meanings see A.R.T. by Robert Cumming
These are stories in which individuals, events or objects are used to convey the meaning of the work. Allegories are probably the most difficult to decipher. They should not be taken on face value, because allegories are awash with hidden meanings, cross-references and deliberately obscure puzzles set by the artist. It is almost as though the artist is playing an intellectual game with the viewer.
A good example of an allegorical painting is The Ambassadors 1533 by Hans Holbein The Younger. Deciphering the symbols gives us insights into the paintings real meaning.
The Ambassador on the left is Jean de Dinteville who commissioned the painting, together with his friend, George de Selve. They visited England in 1533 as ambassadors of Francis I to the Court of Henry VIII.
Inscribed Dagger: Dinteville holds a dagger inscribed in abbreviated Latin that gives his age as 29.
Globe: The globe shows the countries important to Dinteville and even depicts his own chateau at Polisy near Troyes.
Arithmetic Book: is a new publication on applied mathematics and is held open by the set square. It symbolises the breadth and modernity of the Ambassador’s education.
Skull: casts a shadow of death across the floor and tells us that Dinteville was in poor health. You will notice a skull as an insignia on his cap.
Mosaic Pattern: this is an exact copy of the pattern on the floor of Westminster Abbey, which obviously made a great impression on the artist.
Hymn Book: It is open at the page that contains the hymns, ’The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Come, Holy Ghost’. They are the German translation by Martin Luther. This could be a plea by Holbein for reform of the Church along Protestant lines, but without alienating the Catholics.
Lute: The lute is a symbol of harmony, but it has a broken string symbolising the growing animosity between Protestants and Catholics.
Book: Georges de Selve’s arm rests on a book on the edge of which is written in Latin, ‘his age is 25’
Sundial: It reads 11 April 1533. During Easter of 1533 Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and established the Church of England.
The Ambassadors mission was to try to persuade Henry VIII not to break with Rome and also to protect French interests and influence – a difficult mission that ultimately failed. The picture was painted in London.
In the 19th century artists used symbols in a much more obscure way in an attempt to give their work a mystical or spiritual feel. These paintings appealed more to the emotions and came close to having a dream-like quality. The work of Gustave Moreau is a typical example. Such paintings were known as Symbolist paintings and proved to be a vital inspiration for the Surrealist painters of the 20th century.