This could range from simple notions and images that almost everyone might understand to rather complicated references and allusions comprehensible only to a certain part of the public. Today, it requires an effort to perceive some of these meanings. But some symbols and allegories are recurrent and easy to understand.

Ever since ancient Greek and Roman times, western culture has illustrated ideas through allegorical figures and symbols. From the 16th century on, books were published indicating precisely how to represent different allegories with figures for everything from A to Z — from Abundance to Zeal. The figure of Liberty, for example, was always represented holding a pike or staff topped with a cap or bonnet, an allusion to the cap worn by freed slaves in ancient Roman times.

Allegory of Liberty

Print of the Liberty Cap

The attribute or element identifying the figure usually had a visual life of its own.

Hence the cap can appear in a composition even without the figure and convey the idea of Liberty. The French revolutionaries were particularly fond of symbols and allegories. This was because so many keywords during this period — such as Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Unity, the Law, the People — were celebrated with a fervor that was until then reserved for the monarchy and for religion.


Allegory and symbolism had been at the service of the King and the Church; now they were put at the service of the Revolution.

Sometimes allegorical figures and symbols were all that were required — on government letterheads or on public monuments, for example.

The Law Symbolized

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