Allegory / Narratives in art


On this page you will find links to resources, which include handouts, video clips and other useful information. 

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Course handouts:

New handout coming soon.

Religious imagery:


The halo and aureole/mandorla To stress the divinity of Jesus, a symbolic design element was employed that had no obvious precursor in Greek and Roman art but seems to have been imported from the orient. When we now see a figure represented with a halo behind the head of a painted or sculpted image we instantly identify the figure as holy –or divine. That symbol of holiness or divinity appeared in Christian art in the second half of the 4th century. The halo, however, had its origins in 2nd century India and central Asia in representations of Buddha and other holy persons or beings. At first, in Christian art, the halo was reserved to Christ but eventually was applied to representations of any saint and even, sometimes, the emperor. Christ’s halo became distinguishable from others by the addition of three arms of a cross (or three rays of light) inscribed on the round shape behind his head. Other symbolic shapes, the aureole and mandorla, surrounded the entire figure. They appeared in Christian art at about the same time as the halo. Christ is represented standing or sitting full-figure in front of an oval shape. Often the figure of Christ oversteps the edge of the shape. The mandorla is often alleged by some art historians to be derived from the imago clipeataor Roman shield image but it too is of Buddhist origin.

The halo and mandorla/aureole are visual clues that the image represents orthodox Christian belief.

Augustus Eggs paintings of past and present:

August the 4th - Have just heard that B— has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents.
I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!


Ruskin's "Academy Notes" (8 May 1858) described the three works:

In the central piece the husband discovers his wife's infidelity; he dies five years afterwards. The two lateral pictures represent the same moment of night a fortnight after his death. The same little cloud is under the moon. The two children see it from the chamber in which they are praying for their lost mother, and their mother, from behind a boat under a vault on the river shore.

Each painting measures 63.5 centimetres (25.0 in) by 76.2 centimetres (30.0 in). They were all donated to the Tate Gallery in 1918 by Sir Alec and Lady Martin in memory of their daughter Nora, and are now usually given the rather prosaic titles Past and Present, No. 1, Past and Present, No. 2 and Past and Present, No. 3, although occasionally they are titled Misfortune, Prayer, and Despair. The number order does not represent the way they were exhibited (the first scene was shown in the centre), but rather an implied conventional Hogarthian progress of social decline from middle-class prosperity through genteel poverty and, finally, to destitution.


Past and Present, No. 1









The first painting shows the drawing-room of a middle-class Victorian home, with a large gilt mirror over a fireplace, and central round table. It depicts the moment when the family's domestic bliss is broken, with many details echoing the sudden change in circumstances. A woman lies prostrate on the green carpet before her husband, fallen as if in a swoon, hands clasped together, with her gold serpent bracelet resembling manacles. He sits dumbfounded, clutching a letter which reveals her adultery, his right foot resting on a portrait miniature of her lover. An apple has been cut into two pieces; one half remains beside the husband's glossy top hat on the table, stabbed through its worm-ridden core by a small knife; the other half has fallen to the floor beside the wife. The family's two daughters are playing to the left of the painting, but their house of cards – built on top of a novel by Balzac, possibly also a tale of adultery – is tumbling to the floor. (The older girl was modelled by one of William Powell Frith's daughters.) The rear wall of the room, decorated with a rich red wallpaper, also bears two portraits, one on either side of the fireplace and mirror: the wife's portrait hangs to the left, above the playing children but beneath a picture of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (labelled "The Fall"); the husband's to the right hangs beneath a shipwreck scene by Clarkson Stanfield (labelled "Abandoned"). The mirror shows the open door, through which the wife is soon to depart. The packed bag and umbrella by the door may underline her imminent departure, or could have been cast down by the husband when he arrived home.

Past and Present, No. 2

The second painting shows a night scene, several years later, in a dark and sparsely-furnished bedroom shortly after the death of the heartbroken husband. The children are older now: the younger one kneels in a white nightgown, weeping into the lap of the elder, who sits in a black mourning dress, looking out of a window at rooftops and a clouded moon. The same small portraits of the husband and the wife decorate the bedroom wall.

Past and Present, No. 3

The third painting is also a night

scene. The details of the cloud and

moon show it is the same evening

as depicted in the second painting.

The fallen wife is resting in the

detritus-strewn shadows beneath

the Adelphi Arches, by the River

Thames. She clutches a bundle of

rags from which protrude the

emaciated legs of an infant,

perhaps the fruit of her affair,

either asleep or dead. Posters on

the wall ironically advertise two

contemporary plays, "Victims" by Tom Taylor and "The Cure for Love" by Tom Parry, both tales of unhappy marriages, and also "Pleasure excursions to Paris", perhaps a reference to the novel by Balzac in the first picture. She looks up from her place in the gutter to the moon and stars above.

A similarly watery destination for fallen women was depicted in Rossetti's Found, GF Watts's Found Drowned and Abraham Solomon's Drowned! Drowned!, all inspired by Thomas Hood's 1844 poem, The Bridge of Sighs.

© 2000-2020 Tricia Johnson

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