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Iconography is the description, classification, and interpretation of the subject matter of a work of art. Derived from the Greek words eikon, meaning image or icon, and graphia, meaning description, writing, or sketch, the word iconography is one of the least understood, most abused, and most flexible terms in the English language. Its primary purpose is to understand and explicate the meaning behind what is represented. Simply described, it is by definition closely related to the equally complex but more abstract term iconology, traditionally understood as a more advanced (and secondary) phase in visual definition. Iconology has been described as "the description, classification, or analysis of meaning or symbolism in the visual arts that takes into account the tradition of pictorial motifs and their historical, cultural, and social meaning" (Baca, p. 89). Whereas these two terms were historically distinct, with the latter usually seen as the ultimate aim of all iconographic research, it is clear that modern usage has lessened their division. They have, to a certain extent, become interchangeable.

As a subject iconography is as old as the first image created by humans, but as a concept in the history of ideas its documented study first dates from the end of the sixteenth century. Although iconography is still largely the province of the art historian, in whose discipline it was first used and with which it became irretrievably linked, it is clear that this is no longer true. Within that discipline its purpose has changed significantly from its prime association with the representational; iconography is now used to support new fields of research at the crossroads of disciplinary studies. Increasingly iconography is being applied to the nonvisual and to studies using textual, aural, or verbal material, which has extended its meaning. Within the field of popular research and computerization, studies have shown that iconography is the most widely used field of inquiry apart from that of artist or maker.

Iconography can work on many levels, from the simply descriptive to the cultural and symbolic, and may be applied to the wider relational framework of content. The easiest of these is undoubtedly the descriptive, where the multivalent nature of images causes the greatest problems (Eliade, p. 15). Even though most art-historical research is underpinned in one form or another by iconography, this study will deal only with the historical development of the concept, the methodology used in its classification, and some modern trends and not with research such as that by Johannes Molanus in De picturis et imaginibus sacris (1570), which uses an iconographical approach but does not deal with the idea itself.

Historical Development

Italy at the end of the sixteenth century provided the first scholarly studies in iconographical classification, all of which appeared within twenty-five years of each other. These include Andrea Alciati's Emblematum liber (Augsburg, 1531), Pierio Valeriano's Hieroglyphica (Basel, 1556), and Vincenzo Cartari's Le imagini, con la spositione de i dei de gli antichi (Venice, 1556). All of these were superseded by what is now seen as the first study to deal with the theory of iconography, Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (c. 15551622), a slightly ironic publication in that it was initially published without any image whatsoever (not until the third edition in 1603 were woodcuts included). Ripa's study formed the basis for much subsequent research and is one of the most comprehensive iconographic manuals for the student of personifications. It was thanks to the success of his study (and the inclusion of images in subsequent editions) that Ripa's original focus on his subject matter, as documented by the textual, was lost.

Cesare Ripa (fl. 1593)

Little is known of Ripa apart from the fact that he was probably born in Perugia between 1555 and 1560 and is next recorded in the service of Cardinal Antonio Maria Salviati, for whom he acted as controller of the household in Rome. His Iconologia was first published in 1593 to great acclaim and included descriptions of over 1,250 personifications ranging from Abondanza (I, 1 Abundance) to Zelo (V, 417 Zealousness), each of which is described in detail as a manual for writers, artists, and illustrators of the period. The personifications are always described in terms of human forms with their attributes and poses clearly delineated. This dictionary of visual imagery is highly subjective; Ripa not only drew widely on existing representations but, when such precedents did not exist, created structures showing how they should be depicted. The modern iconographic research into nonvisual material is very much in keeping with Ripa's focus, which was intended to encompass all of the arts, visual and otherwise.

Images came to assume a greater role with the consequent and irretrievable association of what was then called iconology and art history. Ripa's initial conceptualizations of what could be represented were removed from its meaning, and iconology came to assume an association with what was there rather than what could be there. Iconology came to deal in visual fact, not theory, and began to take on humanistic associations. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, iconology was synonymous with the study of visual matter, with a slight emphasis initially on religious themes (which was later extended to the secular). It was also around this time that iconography, the now more widely used of these two terms, came into use with its specific reference to visual (usually portraits) rather than textual material. Over time it was a word that came to be applied to specific generic types of subject matternot only portraits but medical and scientific material as well. Although the term ichnography (the art or process of drawings), yet a third variant, had been in use since the late fifteenth century or early sixteenth century, it became popular at the beginning of the seventeenth century for its particular reference to architectural subjects. The primary position occupied by Ripa throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was never seriously threatened despite the appearance of a series of other icono-graphical dictionaries, encyclopedias, and studies, such as those by Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1672), Jacob Spon (1679), Giuseppe Kurtzböck (1735), Honoré Lacombe de Prézel (1756), Jean-Charles Delafosse (1768), Johann J. Winckelmann (17171768), Friedrich Rehberg (1794), August Stöber (1807), Adolphe-Napoléon Didron (18061867), Josef Strzygowski (1885), and Henry Spencer Ashbee (1895).

The nineteenth century saw the organized beginnings of large-scale iconographical studies. This was what could be called the age of theory in art history, in which iconography was to assume a pivotal and dominant role and extend its tenets into other fields. One of the most important interdisciplinary approaches was that developed out of textual studies by a group of French scholars, including Fernand Cabrol (18551937), Charles Cahier (18071882), François-René de Chateaubriand (17681848), Adolphe-Napoléon Didron (18061867), Émile Mâle (18621954), Albert Marignan (fl. nineteenth century), Xavier Barbier de Montault (18301901), and Walter Pater (18391894). These studies were formative in the establishment and development of iconography as a modern interdisciplinary tool. If the works by these scholars were largely iconographical (with occasional forays into iconology), they nevertheless defined the parameters of future research.

Prior to this time, the focus of iconographical studies had been largely on style. However, a new emphasis on content, based on the concept of beauty personified in the Christian ideas embedded in medieval art, emerged with the publication of Chateaubriand's Génie du Christianisme in 1802. In it, he balanced neoclassicism and rationalism against the concept of genius and spirit as represented by the world of medieval art. If Chateaubriand justified the study of art in all its forms from a slightly conceptual stance, it was Didron who actually enforced a more comprehensive iconographical approach. They were the first art historical iconographers of medieval art, which at that stage was still in its infancy and which culminated in Mâle's L'art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France: Étude sur l'iconographie du Moyen Age (trans., Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources ), first published in 1898. Mâle's nationalistic stance may be seen as a subjective aside (a factor of the postWorld War I period) and not one that was to influence future icono-graphical studies. On the other hand, he is the first art historian to be either criticized or credited with the fact that iconography became irrevocably text-driven. The association between text and image is a characteristic that has both hindered and promoted research since then and is an element whose relationship is still not clearly defined.

The twentieth century brought about a major reevaluation of the meaning of such terms and an even wider application of the practice. Resulting largely from the establishment of art history as a formal discipline in universities and the improvement of photographic reproductions, along with the greater availability of images and an increase in publications, iconography and iconology came into common usage and were applied to large-scale collections. The establishment for the first time of art historical photographic archives, such as the Witt Library (Courtauld Institute of Art), the Index of Christian Art (Princeton University), and the Frick Art Reference Library, meant that relatively large-scale visual resources were available for the study of particular themes and subjects.

The organization of the many large photo archives created at the start of the century used subject matter or iconography as a point of access. One of the best-known archives, the Index of Christian Art, founded in 1917 at Princeton University, was also one of the earliest to use a thematic approach developed by Erwin Panofsky (18921968). This archive was undoubtedly to provide the impetus for what is considered the most innovative and insightful approach into the psychology of iconographical perception created by Panofsky, who was not only a friend of the founder but also one of the most ardent users and supporters of the Index.

It was in the first few decades of the twentieth century that the value of iconography was analyzed for the first time in humanistic terms. Typical of such studies were those by Charles Rufus Morey (18771955), who saw iconography as a linchpin in understanding the broader context of any art-historical work. Iconography could therefore be used to determine date, style, and the broader sociocultural position of the work and was no longer limited to subject matter. This movement was ultimately to lead to a certain degree of stagnation in a number of studies prior to the 1930s in which iconography was a slave to the determination of date and origin. It was Morey who was responsible for bringing Erwin Panofsky to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. It is difficult not to acknowledge the influence the index must have had on Panofsky's theories, considering that the work undertaken in the archive had been under way some twenty years before his work (Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, 1939) was published. Morey, like Panofsky, was a firm believer in the theory that iconography could be "read" like a texta practice that continues in most cataloging systems. Though he is generally seen as the father of iconography, Panofsky's theories (see sidebar) have been sharply criticized

Émile MÂle (18621954)

Mâle was the first art historian to deal exclusively with medieval iconography, albeit largely with French medieval material. A student of literature at the École normale supérieure in Paris until 1886, his first appointment was as professor of rhetoric at the university at St.Étienne. His reputation was established once he accepted the position of chair in the Department of Medieval Archaeology at the Sorbonne, Paris, in 1908. His studies largely focused on the French origins of both Romanesque and Gothic sculpture and were conducted from a strongly nationalistic and religious perspective. His major work, L'art religieux du XIIe siècle en France, was published in 1922 and was the first in a series of similarly titled studies that evaluated the entire medieval period as a progressive movement, from a stylistic and iconographical stance. Named director of the École français de Rome in 1923, Mâle was criticized both during his lifetime and afterward for his tendency to view iconography as a finite concept and for his unwillingness to see beyond his own period or area of expertise.

Erwin Panofsky (18921968)

Born in Hanover, Panofsky received his Ph.D. in 1914 from the University of Freiburg. He is recognized as one of the most influential scholars of the twentieth century, not only for his academic studies but for his analysis of the methodologies of iconographic analysis and interpretation, which culminated in Studies in Iconology (1939). Before assuming part-time teaching duties at New York University in 1931, he taught at the Universities of Munich, Berlin, and Hamburg (19261933), where he was strongly influenced by Aby Warburg and what was then known as iconographical analysis. After the Nazis came to power, Panofsky left Germany for good and took up teaching in New York. In 1935, at the invitation of his friend Charles Rufus Morey, Panofsky transferred to the newly established Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, where he remained until his death in 1968. His writings are characterized by a rare erudition and range. A humanist in the broadest sense, Panofsky wrote on such diverse topics as Gothic scholasticism, Albrecht Dürer, German sculpture, and Suger and the Abbey of St. Denis as well as Mozart, the cinema, and the detective story.

in the late twentieth century, but his work is pivotal in understanding the methodology of subject analysis and would influence the role that iconography was to assume to the end of the twentieth century and beyond.

If Panofsky is seen as the scholar whose work culminated in the best-known study, Aby Warburg (18661929), a like-minded scholar, was also instrumental in promoting icono-graphical research methods. Panofksy was also preceded by some notable iconographers, mostly on the other side of the Atlantic (with the exception of Meyer Schapiro [19051996], who, although born in Lithuania, lived in the United States), whose theories paralleled his own. Among these were Fritz Saxl (18901948) and Edgar Wind (19001971) of the Warburg Institute. All German by birth and training, they saw a need to evaluate the work from an interdisciplinary perspective in which its true meaning could be elucidated not just in relation to its immediate context but in its broader value, thus revealing "the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion" (Panofsky, 1939, p. 7). Panofsky's theories are very much the product of the art-historical milieu in which he lived and worked, a world in which art history was termed Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte (art history as the history of ideas; see Dvorák), and of course his Kantian philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804) was a major influence in Panofsky's formulation of a number of theories, such as "Copernican Revolution," in which he argues that it is the image or representation that makes the object possible instead of the opposite. Kant's belief that the human brain played an active role in perception and was not just a passive recipient influenced Panofsky's structure as to how the brain perceived images and structured iconography. It was at this stage that the terms iconography and iconology were revised, with iconography redefined as the basic stage of interpretation and iconology seen as the more advanced stage of interpretation.

Iconography was to develop slowly yet consistently through the rest of the twentieth century until a period of critical self-examination in art history brought about some new developments. The whole disciplinenot just iconography or Panofsky's theoriescame under criticism and revision in the 1960s and 1970s. The relevance of iconography in art-historical studies was questioned, mainly by iconographers, and relegated to a secondary position by some factions within the discipline. Iconography, like Panofsky's theories, was seen as resistant to change and too self-contained within its own parameters. Now that this period of self-examination seems to have abated, the relevance of iconography to what is called the "new art history" has once again been accepted as one of the fundamental tenets of the discipline. The implications for its understanding have also been extended into previously under-researched fields, such as reception, color, gender, and ethnography.


If Ripa was among the first iconographical theoreticians to realize the importance of structure and systematization in this field, others did not follow his path until the beginning of the twentieth century. Informal, loosely defined, and independent structures were developed at the end of the nineteenth century with many scholarly studies in which related concepts and themes were grouped together, and significant and dominant subjects were discovered with the amassing of large bodies of visual data. It was from such studies that the twin applications of methodology to cataloging and interpretation developed. The former, albeit on a less-developed basis, was in place prior to Panofsky's work.

The need to organize large visual collections using meaningful and practical guidelines led not only to the creation of formal principles but was directly responsible for Panofsky's work, which could only have emerged with such a platform in place. This work was initially undertaken in the photo archives that developed at the start of the century. It must be remembered that because no guidelines existed for the handling of such material, the organizational principles in use largely emulated those of the traditional book librarya policy that has caused some difficulties. The primary cataloging principle in visual collections was organization on a national basis (French, Italian, Spanish). This was followed by the maker's name (Fragonard, Giotto, Goya). The output was iconographically subdivided (portraits, male, landscapes, still life, abstract), depending on the complexity of the artist's output. Such subject headings could also form the primary access point to the material, as in the case of the Index of Christian Art or the Rijksbureau Voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in The Hague.

Whereas such structures were broadly similar in their construction and could include any number of themes (usually referred to as subject headings), there were no existing principles or guidelines with which to determine terminology or structure. This was to change with Panofsky's pioneering study, which provided a framework for interpreting and understanding iconography and iconology. His threefold division of interpretation and understanding also examined the psychology and mental processes involved in creative work:

  1. The first level is a description of the factual (or expressional), termed the "pre-iconographic description," in which uninterpreted subjects are enumerated. This level does not require any in-depth knowledge of either the work or its context, apart from the ability to recognize what is represented.
  2. The secondary level, iconographical analysis, involves an understanding of the subject matter. It "constitutes the world of images, stories and allegories" (Panofsky 1939, p. 14) and requires an analysis of the pre-iconographic material, which can be derived only from a familiarity with and knowledge of the themes and concepts represented. The recognition of such themes can be based on external sources (such as textual material) and may be extensive, but it is usually acquired from familiarization with the material.
  3. The third or iconographical level is the most complicated of the three and involves an understanding of the intrinsic meaning or content, constituting the world of "symbolical values." This level requires "a familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind" and attempts to place the deeper meaning of the work (if it exists) within the realm of the conscious. Such deeper meanings cannot be immediately recognized.

Why Panofsky completely reversed the use of existing terminology remains a mystery, but it was probably to accommodate his structure, which in itself is slightly unsatisfactory because of its inability to formulate a satisfactory term for the first level. The three divisions are clearly structured as a paper system, but in reality the speed with which the human mind culturally contextualizes subjects at a pre-iconographic level slightly blurs the three divisions. Considering the cultural associations everyone possesses, and which must be applied at a conscious or subconscious level, it is difficult to disentangle the various levels into coherent thought processes. Nevertheless, Panofsky's legacy was to influence art-historical studies for many generations. His pioneering work, even in the early twenty-first century, forms the basic principle for iconographical analysis. In Roland Barthes's (1973) semiological system, the terminology and structure of "sign," "signifier," and "signified" was influenced by, and is remarkably similar to, Panofsky's.

Panofsky's theories were also to provide an ordered framework for developing methodologies in subject classification. Even in the early twenty-first century, whether in computerized or manual format, most classification systems structure a tripartite division that, although slightly out of sync with Panofsky's system, nevertheless mirrors it in essence. Such structures differ from Panofsky's in their relationship to user needs.

  1. The first of these is usually the broad level descriptor or general subject heading, such as portrait or landscapean iconographic descriptor at its broadest.
  2. The second is the pre-iconographic description of the workthe generic elements in the work, such as bridge, lake, table, and so forth.
  3. The third level is the specifics of the workfor example, an identified person's name, the name of a battle or of a bridgean amalgam of the iconographical and iconological.

Most cataloging systems fail to address iconological analysis, leaving such work to scholarly researchers. One of the basic requirements for iconographic classification is consistency and standardization, and it was this factor that led one of Panofsky's colleagues, Henri van de Waal (19101972), the next great iconographer of the postwar period, to discuss with Panofsky in 1948 the principles of iconographical analysis. Their discussions resulted in what is now the most widely used iconographical system in the world, ICONCLASS. This alphanumeric system, published between 1973 and 1985, divides what can be represented into nine divisions, with further subdivisions to the specific. For example, 73C14 is the code for the Burial of St. John the Baptist and is based on the divisions:

7: Subjects drawn from the Bible

73: Subjects drawn from the New Testament

73C: The public life of Christ from baptism until the Passion

73C1: Story of John the Baptist

73C14: Burial of John the Baptist

Systems may appear in natural language or coded (as in ICONCLASS) and use the construction of subject headings, thesaurus-based terms, or free text descriptions.

With the advent of computerization to art history (and the computer's application to iconographical studies in particular), such systems have proliferated, highlighting the popularity of subject analysis but also increasing the visual material available for scholarly research which has, in many ways, brought about a renewal of interest in iconography. However, no matter how structured or developed the classification system, the inherent difficulties and, ultimately, the impossible task of describing the visual with the verbal remain.

Trends and Developments

Computerization and its application to art history has been the most dominant factor in the popular renewal of interest in iconography. User studies have shown the popularity of accessing subject matter in such venues as museum and gallery databases. There has been a similar renewed interest in scholarly research. Iconography is developing along twin tracks whereby the traditional is being refined with a greater need for detail and new needs are being created with the opening up of new fields. Large-scale iconographical projects have developed in art history with specializations, such as mythology, music, classical and legal material, medicine, and costume, to name just a few. Up to the end of the twentieth century, iconographical studies were largely concerned with Western art and the representational but must now encompass the abstract, stylized, non-Western, and nonrepresentational.

Generalities will no longer suffice; more detail is required that reflects the study of minutiae now demanded by scholarship. With such details, specific iconographic subfields, which had hitherto been neglected or treated only in passing, have assumed greater importance. Among these are such issues as gender, race, gesture, color, and politics. A number of these concepts have developed in response to new art-historical concerns. With the opening up of art history into new fields of research, we have also moved into non-Western art and an iconography that was never extensively researched. Islamic, Judaic, Chinese, and Indian art forms are now being studied from an iconographical and iconological perspective; consequently there is a need to develop a suitable terminology and to apply different approaches that theories such as Panofsky's cannot encompass. Whereas in the past iconographical studies dealt largely with classical, medieval, or religious subjects, the whole field of study has opened significantly and now reflects a number of disciplines, not just the more classically oriented. Iconography is responding to a widening field of scholarship. In all of these developments, and especially in its associations with other disciplines, the humanistic background of iconographical research is being reinforced and extended.

Charles Rufus Morey (18771955)

Chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, Morey was a historian of early Christian art whose primary field of study was the iconography of Italian art of the pre-700 period. Apart from his scholarly studies, which ranged from research on gold-glass mosaics to early Latin manuscripts and iconographical motifs of the origins of early Christian art, he is best remembered for founding the Index of Christian Art in 1917. As an iconographer he realized that the major obstacle to understanding the development of particular themes and subjects lay in the lack of available knowledge. It was this that led to his establishment of the world's largest iconographically organized archive of medieval art. Morey's studies, while now slightly outdated, demonstrate his belief that the full understanding of a work of art depends on the use of iconography in a contextualized manner. A close friend of Panofsky, Morey believed that iconography was an organic entity that was constantly developing and that could be understood only in relation to what was known at any one time.

If iconography has changed, so has the way in which it is used. We have moved beyond iconographical interpretation into issues of reception that, in many ways, are an extension of Panofsky's cultural contextualization. Now, however, there is greater focus on the specific work (and what we can learn from it) than on the national or cultural contexts and their relationship to subject matter, which was Panofsky's premise for understanding iconology. We are now attempting to understand not just the hidden meaning behind a specific theme or motif but also how subjects are received and understood by the viewer. The new focus of iconography demands that viewers transpose themselves to the period of creation and reception and operate at a spiritual level that moves beyond the work of art itself. It is disappointing that the majority of iconographical studies fails to consider form and functionfactors that are pivotal to understanding the meaning of any work holistically.

Despite the application of the term to disciplines other than the visual, iconography remains very much within the province of the art-historical world. Its popular use in relation to textual, musical, political, religious, theatrical, or dramatic studies, to name just a few of the disciplines to which it has been applied, is nearly always based on visual material within those fields. Its use is therefore less clearly defined in such fields although, as a concept, there seems no reason why it should not be applied even at all three of Panofsky's levels. Iconography still remains highly dependent on the need to find a textual support for its subject mattera characteristic that has impeded research. The overriding need to find a textual basis, even where none may exist, has created an unreal association between the verbal and the visual. Iconographical scholarship, especially that of the medieval period, has looked for sources for the visual among a variety of documents, from the legal to the poetic, when no visual relationship may exist. But even if still text-driven, iconography has fortunately moved away from the need to find the earliest example of whatever theme or subject is being studied.

Chronological or developmental stages in the history of a motif are no longer seen as being of paramount importance. There have been some trends to extend iconographical significance to reflect an even wider application beyond what has hitherto been defined. Terms such as aboutness or relatedness denote concepts and ideas beyond the iconological. Brought about largely through the application of computers to iconographical studies, such terms reflect the need to extend meaning to the absolute. Unsatisfactory in meaning and application, they attempt to extend the iconological significance of a work to what are perceived to be broader, yet related, iconological concepts that, like the terms themselves, are highly subjective and may not be supported by factual evidence. If iconology was believed to have separated art from form and content, this new direction threatens to put such relationships even further into the background.

See also Aesthetics ; Arts ; Classification of Arts and Sciences, Early Modern ; Context ; Hierarchy and Order ; Interdisciplinarity ; Language and Linguistics ; Logic ; Symbolism ; Visual Culture ; Visual Order to Organizing Collections .

Henri van de Waal (19101972)

Born in Rotterdam, van de Waal began his studies in 1929 at the University of Leiden, which was to be his academic home for the rest of his career. He received his Ph.D. in 1940 for a study on the seventeenth-century Batavian revolt. As a writer he is best known for his iconological study on three centuries of representing Dutch national history, Drie eeuwen vaderlandsche geschieduitbeelding 15001800: Een iconologische studie (The Hague, 1952), which, although ready for the printer in 1942, was not published until 1952 as the typescript was destroyed by the Germans during the occupation of the Netherlands. While interned in a prisoner of war camp, he began to formulate his theories on structuring a system for iconographic classification that eventually was called ICONCLASS and was published between 1973 and 1985. After the war van de Waal was named director of the University of Leiden's print room and was later made professor of art history there. His classification system is based on Panofsky's pre-iconographic and iconographic levels with nothing iconological in the structure. Factually based, it merges form and content and is now the most widely used iconographical classification system in the world.


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Colum Hourihane

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iconography (ī´kŏnŏg´rəfē) [Gr.,=image-drawing] or iconology [Gr.,=image-study], in art history, the study and interpretation of figural representations, either individual or symbolic, religious or secular; more broadly, the art of representation by pictures or images, which may or may not have a symbolic as well as an apparent or superficial meaning.

The Meaning and Significance of Iconography

When first used in the 18th cent. the term was confined to the study of engravings, which were then the standard mode of illustrating books on art and on antiquities in general. But it came shortly to be applied more specifically to the history and classification of Christian images and symbols of all sorts, in whatever medium they happened to be rendered originally or in whatever way they were reproduced for study.

With the rise of the systematic investigation of art from prehistoric ages to modern times, it became apparent that each major phase or epoch in which figural representations occur had created and developed in varying degrees of richness and elaboration an iconography of its own. As used today, therefore, the term is necessarily qualified to indicate the field of iconographic study under discussion—e.g., the iconography of the various Egyptian deities, the iconography of Roman imperial portraits, early Christian iconography, Buddhist or Hindu iconography, Byzantine iconography, Gothic iconography.

As a method of scholarly research the science of iconography strives also to recover and express the thought from which a given convention of representation has arisen, particularly when the convention has assumed the value of a symbol. The importance of identifying motifs is central to iconographical interpretation. For example, St. Catherine of Alexandria is traditionally portrayed in the presence of a wheel. This wheel is a familiar attribute that serves to identify her and that at the same time signifies a miracle connected with her martyrdom. Some attributes are more difficult to understand, and their obscurity has led scholars to consult other images or literary sources in order to interpret the motif more satisfactorily.

Certain themes characteristic of a specific philosophy have been commonly represented during an era, and an iconography has been developed to express them. An example is the still life vanitas vanitatum of the Middle Ages, a reminder of the transitory quality of earthly pleasure symbolized by a skull, candle, and hourglass (or, in later versions, a watch). In every living art the conventions and symbols, as well as their meanings, change with the passage of time and the growth of ideas; many disappear, while others become almost unintelligible to a later generation and can be recovered only by intensive study. Among the foremost scholars in iconographic studies are Didron, Émile Mâle, Aby Warburg, and Erwin Panofsky.

Christian Iconography

By reason of its long history and the dynamic concepts that controlled it, the growth of Christian iconography is rich and varied. Beginning with the catacomb frescoes in the early centuries of the Christian era, it deals with the perils faced by the human soul on earth in its journey toward eternal salvation. Figures from the Old Testament (e.g., Abraham, Judith and Holofernes), episodes from the life and passion of Jesus (e.g., the Nativity, the Descent from the Cross, the Pietà), scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (e.g., the Sacred Conversation, the Visitation), scenes from the lives of the saints (e.g., St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, the Martyrdom of St. Agatha), and symbolic scenes of ultimate beatitude (e.g., the Majesty, the Savior of the World, the Coronation of the Virgin), all reveal the same purpose—to repeat in many forms and inculcate in every mind the moral aims and fundamental dogmas of the Christian religion.

A long series of evolutionary stages unfolds in the representation of a given person or scene from the art of the catacombs to that of the Gothic cathedrals. Thus the art of the Middle Ages is above all a kind of sacred writing whose system of characters, i.e., the iconography, had to be learned by every artist. It was governed also by a kind of sacred mathematics, in which position, grouping, symmetry, and number were of extraordinary importance and were themselves an integral part of the iconography.

From earliest times Christian iconography has likewise been a symbolic code, showing the faithful one thing and inviting them to see in it the figure of another. Some examples are: the dove, which figures the Holy Spirit; the fish, symbol of Christ, from the Greek icthus, an anagram for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior; the monkey or reptile as symbol of evil; and the bowl or pitcher of water and the vase of lilies that signify the Virgin's purity in the Annunciation scene. In Christian art, form is thus the vehicle of spiritual meaning; in the expression and reading of this meaning lies the essence of Christian iconography.


See E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1939, repr. 1962); G. Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (2d ed. 1955); A. N. Didron, Christian Iconography (2 vol., tr. 1851–86, repr. 1965); G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art (tr. 1971).

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Iconography (Gk., eikon, ‘image’, + graphe, ‘writing’). The study of the representation of otherwise unseen realities through coded means: such realities may include anything from God or gods to ideas; and the means may include statues, pictures, buildings, charms, or indeed anything which can hold the ‘charge’ of such representation. Since religions have differing attitudes to the representation of the holy or the divine, each religion has a different iconographical style and content. See further ART.


Jewish iconography is dominated by the prohibition on idols. While recurrent symbols occur in Torah and synagogue decoration, they are mainly to be found in manuscripts.


The earliest Christian art was influenced by late Hellenistic realism, while in theme it was largely symbolic: Christ represented by a fish (see ICHTHUS), or a young shepherd, etc. From the 4th cent., Christian art was influenced by Neoplatonic aesthetics which saw art as disclosing a higher, spiritual realm, and the highly conscious symbolism characteristic of icons developed. Already one can detect a difference of emphasis between East and West, the E. stressing the liturgical function of the icon, while the W. saw images as pictorial illustrations of biblical events and religious doctrines. This came to a head in the 8th and 9th cents. with the Iconoclastic Controversy. In the W., partly under the influence of a growing devotion to Christ's sacred humanity, a more realistic, less symbolic style of painting developed from the 12th cent., about the same time as the symbolic use of form and colour reached its apogee in the stained glass of, e.g., Chartres Cathedral. The development of art in the W. has broken any tradition of Christian iconography: W. religious artists combine an arbitrary dependence on current artistic techniques with personally adopted symbolic schemes. As with other religions, Christianity also developed elaborate codes associated with events (e.g. baptism, crucifixion, resurrection, etc.) and people, esp. saints.




Of all religions, Hinduism is the richest and most complex in its iconographical materials. Its strong sense of Brahman, not simply underlying and guaranteeing all appearance, but actually pervading, and able to become focally manifest, in all appearance, means that any object can be charged with the divine. To make an image, therefore, is to bring the divine into that image—equally, the image may become ‘dead’ when the particular concentration of the divine is withdrawn from it at the end of the act of pūjā (worship). Iconography is therefore a matter of interaction and of the means to its achievement. The most important locus of the interaction is the mūrti (lit., ‘embodiment’, hence ‘image’).


Early Buddhist icons are by no means as prolific as those of Hindus: the Buddha had pointed away from relying on outside help (e.g. gods). Nevertheless, the centrality of the Buddha in leaving guidance evoked icons of recognition (e.g. images of the Buddha in the attainment of enlightenment). Stūpas are iconographic representations of Buddhist truth in this way. However, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the strong sense of the buddha-nature being present in all things (indeed, being all that there is of all things) led to developments comparable to those in Hinduism. In Mahāyāna, one is surrounded by a vast host of buddhas and bodhisattvas, who are, so to speak, ‘here’ in order to assist those who reverence them. Each of these has an elaborate set of images and symbols, which reach a supreme height in Tibet.


Although Sikh gurdwārās are much plainer than most Hindu mandirs, pictures of Gurūs Nānak and Gobind Siṅgh feature prominently. Gurū Nānak is typically depicted as radiant, white-bearded, and turbaned, gazing in benediction. Sometimes all ten Gurūs are portrayed in a single picture, illustrating their essential unity. A picture of Harimandir Sāhib, Amritsar, is popular and to be seen in many Sikh houses, as are paper calendar pictures of the Gurūs.

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i·co·nog·ra·phy / ˌīkəˈnägrəfē/ • n. 1. (pl. -phies) the use or study of images or symbols in visual arts. ∎  the visual images, symbols, or modes of representation collectively associated with a person, cult, or movement: the iconography of pop culture. 2. the illustration of a subject by drawings or figures. ∎  a collection of illustrations or portraits. DERIVATIVES: i·co·nog·ra·pher / -fər/ n. i·con·o·graph·ic / īˌkänəˈgrafik/ adj. i·con·o·graph·i·cal / īˌkänəˈgrafikəl/ adj. i·con·o·graph·i·cal·ly / īˌkänəˈgrafik(ə)lē/ adv.

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"iconography." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 12 Dec. 2017 <>.

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i·co·nol·o·gy / ˌīkəˈnäləjē/ • n. the study of visual imagery and its symbolism and interpretation, esp. in social or political terms. ∎  symbolism: the iconology of a work of art. DERIVATIVES: i·con·o·log·i·cal / īˌkänəˈläjikəl/ adj.

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iconography Study and interpretation of themes and symbols in the figurative arts. In the 18th century the term referred to the classification of ancient monuments by motifs and subjects, but by the 19th it was more specifically concerned with symbolism in Christian art. Modern iconographers also study secular art and that of religions other than Christianity.

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iconography. Branch of knowledge dealing with representations of people or objects in art and design, hence the symbolism in a design. Christian iconography, for example, is immense and complex, and informed virtually every aspect of Western art and architecture until Modernism killed it.


Jane Turner (1996)

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iconographydaffy, taffy •Amalfi •Cavafy, Gaddafi •Effie •beefy, Fifi, leafy •cliffy, iffy, jiffy, Liffey, niffy, sniffy, spiffy, squiffy, stiffy, whiffy •salsify •coffee, toffee •wharfie •Sophie, strophe, trophy •Dufy, goofy, Sufi •fluffy, huffy, puffy, roughie, roughy, scruffy, snuffy, stuffy, toughie •comfy • atrophy •anastrophe, catastrophe •calligraphy, epigraphy, tachygraphy •dystrophy, epistrophe •autobiography, bibliography, biography, cardiography, cartography, chirography, choreography, chromatography, cinematography, cosmography, cryptography, demography, discography, filmography, geography, hagiography, historiography, hydrography, iconography, lexicography, lithography, oceanography, orthography, palaeography (US paleography), photography, pornography, radiography, reprography, stenography, topography, typography •apostrophe •gymnosophy, philosophy, theosophy •furphy, murphy, scurfy, surfy, turfy

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iconology •haji • algae • Angie •argy-bargy, Panaji •edgy, sedgy, solfeggi, veggie, wedgie •cagey, stagy •mangy, rangy •Fiji, gee-gee, squeegee •Murrumbidgee, ridgy, squidgy •dingy, fringy, mingy, stingy, whingy •cabbagy • prodigy • effigy • villagey •porridgy • strategy • cottagey •dodgy, podgy, splodgy, stodgy •pedagogy •Georgie, orgy •ogee • Fuji •bhaji, budgie, pudgy, sludgy, smudgy •bulgy •bungee, grungy, gungy, scungy, spongy •allergy, analogy, genealogy, hypallage, metallurgy, mineralogy, tetralogy •elegy •antilogy, trilogy •aetiology (US etiology), amphibology, anthology, anthropology, apology, archaeology (US archeology), astrology, biology, campanology, cardiology, chronology, climatology, cosmology, craniology, criminology, dermatology, ecology, embryology, entomology, epidemiology, etymology, geology, gynaecology (US gynecology), haematology (US hematology), hagiology, horology, hydrology, iconology, ideology, immunology, iridology, kidology, meteorology, methodology, musicology, mythology, necrology, neurology, numerology, oncology, ontology, ophthalmology, ornithology, parasitology, pathology, pharmacology, phraseology, phrenology, physiology, psychology, radiology, reflexology, scatology, Scientology, seismology, semiology, sociology, symbology, tautology, technology, terminology, theology, topology, toxicology, urology, zoology • eulogy • energy • synergy • apogee • liturgy • lethargy •burgee, clergy •zymurgy • dramaturgy

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