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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'sLe 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


views updated May 23 2018


ICONOGRAPHY. The War of American Independence led to a large body of visual art. Some met the highest artistic standards of its time; some was naïve. Some came from direct observation; some was constructed remembrance of how an event "ought" to have been. Taken together, the oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings that depict the Revolution give a strong sense of what participants and observers saw at the time.


All of the Revolution's artists produced their work in the shadow of Benjamin West (1738–1820). Born in Philadelphia, West left for England both to pursue advanced training and to work on topics beyond the limits of provincial culture, particularly history painting. West's Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery of Canada) is considered the first work of modern-dress history painting, thus breaking the convention that history painting dealt with ancient subjects. West took care to model his characters' faces realistically, but the painting was an allegory of the concept of civic virtue displayed in the North American wilderness. British Major General James Wolfe fell after routing the French under Montcalm and securing North America for the British; as depicted in the painting, Wolfe's death was transcendent, validating a much larger cause.

Not only West but also the students who gathered in his London studio were now free to explore variations on the modern theme. One student, Matthew Pratt (1734–1805), titled a group portrait The American School (1765, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Two members of this school, John Trumbull (1756–1843) and Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), took the Revolutionary War as their main subject.

Like West, Trumbull and Peale wanted to escape the confines of portraiture. Trumbull, in particular, produced a series of monumental canvasses on the events of the Revolution. Some of them, such as The Declaration of Independence (1786–1794, Yale University) showed civilian events. But Trumbull emulated West's military subject matter in The Death of General Wolfe at least twice. The best known is The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1786, Yale University), but The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec (1786, Yale University) is of equal power. Both canvasses show the Revolutionary leader overwhelmed, Warren by oncoming British troops and Montgomery by figures in frontier garb. West had used a pensive Indian in The Death of General Wolfe to indicate the American setting. Trumbull also used figures of color, a carefully observed young black male in The Death of General Warren and several Indians in The Death of General Montgomery. Sensitive, perhaps, to the problem of slavery, he identified the black figure as on the American side and placed a musket in his hands.

Trumbull did other large war canvasses, including a monumental rendering of the surrender of Hessian Colonel Rall at Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776 (Yale University). Rall, dying of the wounds he has sustained, nevertheless remains upright, propped up by an American. Washington is mounted, extending his right arm in a diagonal line that reaches down across to Rall, who continues it toward a fallen drum. The American commander wears an expression of compassion and pity.

Trumbull completed his war sequence with two versions of The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (1797, Yale University; 1824, United States Capitol). In both versions, the British second-in-command, on foot, yields his sword to Washington's delegate, General Benjamin Lincoln. Mounted American and French officers fence the British officer in on both sides, as red-coated troops stand at attention in the deep background. The sky is shot with red and with smoke, suggesting the destruction the British had endured and the larger destruction of Britain's American project. The Union Jack is not to be seen, but both the Bourbon Fleur-de-Lys and the Stars and Stripes flutter in the wind. The British general stands at the bottom of a diagonal line of light that ascends past Lincoln, a more distant Washington, to the triumphant American flag. This time there is no death, only the mixture of triumph and defeat.

Peale never attempted such large themes. Instead, he aimed to capture the likenesses of the Revolution's leaders (a large project to which Trumbull also contributed). But the contrast between Peale's first Washington portrait (1772, Washington and Lee University) and his second (1779, Princeton University) belongs to the war's iconography. In the first, Washington is a naïve provincial, showing off his new wealth and his colonel's uniform. In the second, set at the triumph over British troops at Princeton early in 1777, Washington has become the General, fully in command of himself, of the cannon on which he rests his hand, of the history he is enacting, and of the canvas.

Like virtually all paintings in the genre, these canvasses were inventing tradition. The successes of the American army and militia were undeniable, but Yorktown became possible because the French allies had what America lacked, a significant navy. To most Americans, however, the naval history of the Revolution is associated with the figure of John Paul Jones, most notably for his victory off the English coast over the British vessel Serapis. Jones's own Bonhomme Richard sustained so much damage that it sank. Perhaps it is appropriate that one of the best-known paintings of the event is by the English naval painter Robert Dodd (1748–1816), who worked primarily in the London dockland district called Wapping and whose main theme was the glories of the Royal Navy in the age of Nelson. Other images abound. Several are available in the online picture collection of the New York Public Library.

The revolutionary era's tradition of grand-scale narrative painting continued into the nineteenth century. Two different monumental canvasses produced at about the same time depict Washington's crossing of the Delaware River to raid the Hessian forces at Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776. One is by the American painter George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879). Painted between 1856 and 1871 and held by the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, the painting shows Washington astride a white horse, aboard a flat-bottom boat that two men are poling across the nearly-frozen water. His head defines the top of a triangle. Aura-like, glowing blue sky surrounds him, driving back dark winter clouds to the top of the frame and to his right. The image is crowded with soldiers and with other boats, but it also is static. The two men poling the boat define the sides of the triangle at whose apex is Washington's head, but they seem to be working against one another. Curiously reminiscent of Bingham's better-known Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art), the painting projects no internal driving energy.

That is not at all the case with Emmanuel Gottleib Leutze's (1816–1868) version of the same event (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Although identified as American, Leutze was German-born and identified himself strongly with the failed European democratic revolutions of 1848. As in Bingham's similarly monumental canvas, an aura of bright sky seems to emanate from Washington himself. But unlike the Bingham, Leutze's canvas pulses with energy. The foreground boat, bearing the general, is off-center to the right, with ice-choked water ahead. The water, however, is lit by the bright sky, and the brightness, like the boat itself, seems to be cleaving a way through the ice. The polemen all are pushing in the same direction. Their poles are at the same angle as the pole of the Stars and Stripes behind Washington, which is borne by the future president, James Monroe. As in the Bingham, there are other boats in the background. But instead of forming a jumble, all are pushing in the same direction, and a point of land reaches out from the left as if to meet them. There is a hint of a rainbow's hopeful arc between the top of the flagpole in Washington's boat and the more distant vessels. Washington himself is standing, facing forward, bracing himself against what appears to be a cold wind.

David Hackett Fischer has demonstrated that Leutze took great care in the accurate construction of his image. The flat-bottom vessels are Durham boats, used as river ferries and large enough to hold many people. Passengers usually stood, because the boats were stable on the water. Leutze included a microcosm of American people, including a frontiersman and a black figure. That figure is emblematic of the artist's own strong opposition to slavery and of Washington's transformation on the slavery question. Initially hostile to blacks in his army's ranks, he was changing his mind by the time of the raid on Trenton. In 1781 a light infantry battalion instrumental in the final assault at Yorktown included a Rhode Island company in which blacks were probably the majority. The boatmen of John Glover's Fourteenth Continental mostly came from the fishing port of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and many of them were black. But despite Leutze's care both with iconography and details, the painting has its flaws. As the Stars and Stripes was not adopted until months later, the flag behind Washington's head should have featured a small Union Jack rather than stars.


The grand narrative paintings by Trumbull, Bingham, and Leutze and the portraits of leaders by Peale and many others form only part of the war's iconography. A remarkable permanent exhibition mounted by the Chicago Historical Society traces the "Voices and Images of the New Nation." The exhibit includes extended coverage of the war, from the opening shots at Lexington to Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown.

Among the prominent items in the display are four color engravings by apprentice silversmith Amos Doolittle of New Haven, Connecticut. Doolittle completed the series by the end of 1775, and he seems to have based the images on interviews with participants. Rather than heroic deaths and surrenders on the part of towering officers, Doolittle's sequence depicts the coming of battle to two small New England towns.

Unlike Paul Revere's well-known and overtly propagandistic engraving of The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on March 5, 1770, showing the Americans killed that night merely as hapless victims, Doolittle presents a crescendo of conflict. The first engraving in the sequence, clearly set at dawn, depicts the initial skirmish at Lexington. The village is in the background, and the eight-hundred-strong British force is snaking its way through the streets and buildings. The image is not large enough to contain them all, and the rearguard is off the edge of the frame to the right. In the mid-foreground one mounted officer has raised his saber to give an order. Responding to the order, the foremost squad of redcoats has opened fire and its members are obscured by the smoke of their muskets. In the foreground the Lexington militia is in a haphazard retreat, with five of its members fallen. Some appear to be only boys. The viewer cannot tell who, if anybody, is in command.

Doolittle's second plate shows A View of the Town of Concord. Now the whole British force is in view. Some are drawn up in their ranks, with their arms grounded, but others are entering from the left. There is not a Patriot to be seen. The point of view is from within the town graveyard, where two British figures are standing. Both appear to be officers, and one has a spyglass raised, peering out of the frame and apparently observing more colonials in retreat.

In the two final engravings the dynamic has changed. The third shows the fight at Concord North Bridge, as the colonials resist the British entry. The bridge is in mid-background at almost center frame, forming an arch that both unites and separates the colonial forces to the left and the oncoming redcoats to the right. Now the colonials also are drawn into ranks, with two mounted officers in the lead. They are outnumbered by the enemy, but each side is pushing toward the other, snakelike, and the sense of imminent collision at the apex of the bridge is strong. Taken together, the two forces define a line across the engraving, separating peaceful fields in the foreground from a farmstead and more fields deep in the frame. The two forces are throwing up clouds, which a wind is blowing into the frame so as not to obscure them. The clouds most likely are dust, stirred up by their feet, but could be smoke from their firelocks.

In the final image, set at the southern part of Lexington, the British in retreat are in trouble. Each of the three buildings within the frame is on fire, with smoke billowing to heaven. The British are crossing the frame left to right, in mid-background. In the near foreground militiamen are sheltered by a stone wall as they prime and aim their muskets. Other Americans are closer to the red-coats, also firing at them, some from the shelter of trees atop a small hill. Deep in the frame, beyond the first line of British troops, patriots appear to be firing at still more redcoats. The British still outnumber the Americans, and in an open field they easily could defeat them with their combination of firepower and discipline. But they are caught from both sides.

Doolittle could not have known how long the War of Independence was going to last. But his four engravings convey a strong sense of the rapid collapse of British intentions—a bold strike to shock and awe the colonials—into a quagmire from which the British could find no easy escape. Doolittle, who had no formal training, fully appreciated color and was skilled at presenting perspective. On the morning of 19 April there were no heroes, no dominant figures, no looming skies, and no apparent allegories. The deaths that he presents in the first of the engravings seem tragic and wasted, rather than gloriously brave and sacrificial. Nonetheless, of all those depicting the Revolution he is perhaps the most successful at capturing the war's intrusion into one small community. It came to many others in about the same way during the years that followed.

Other images in the Chicago exhibit also give the sense of battle as soldiers experienced it. On 11 September 1777 Brigadier General George Weedon wrote an excited diary entry about the encounter between Washington's troops and Sir William Howe's at Brandywine Creek, near Philadelphia. In the diary he also sketched the positions of the respective American units. His haste and excitement come through both in his handwriting and his drawings.

Soldiers also recorded thoughts and visual impressions by engraving the powder horns that they carried. The Chicago exhibit includes several. In 1776 James Pike, probably of New Hampshire, carved an image showing six British "Regulars, the Aggressors," one with a musket to his shoulder firing toward a "Liberty Tree." Five "Provincials Defending" stand on the other side of the tree. Four have their weapons on their shoulders. One is holding his in front of him, as if to deflect the oncoming musket ball. Pike was no Amos Doolittle, let alone a John Trumbull. His figures are crude, even insectlike. But as surely as any grand canvas, his image presents a strong sense of the Revolutionary War's significance, at least as he understood it.


Willing or not, native people found themselves forced to become participants in the war. Some must undoubtedly have created images to remember and understand their experiences, but if such images survive, they are hidden from outside eyes. Nonetheless, the iconography that white artists created around Indian figures reveals yet another of the war's dimensions. Two such notable paintings are The Death of Jane McCrea, done in 1803 by the New York painter John Vanderlyn (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut) and George Romney's portrait of Thayendanagea/Joseph Brant, done in London in 1776.

Jane McCrea was a young woman engaged to a Loyalist officer who was with General John Burgoyne's expedition in 1777. Setting out to join him, she was killed in a fight between Indian groups, one of which was escorting her. That much is certain, as is her fiance's horrified recognition of McCrea's scalp when it was brought into Burgoyne's camp. Vanderlyn's painting, done in bright colors, draws not on eyewitness description but rather on a sensationalized description of the murder in Joel Barlow's epic poem, The Vision of Columbus (1787). Barlow describes how "two Mohawks meet the maid"; he then instructs, "Historian, Hold!" so that he can dwell on her "globes of snow." In Vanderlyn's rendition she kneels as one of the Indians jerks back her hair. Her bodice is pulled down to reveal her right breast fully. The Indians are shown stripped to the waist, and one has raised a tomahawk to smash her forehead. The sense of imminent rape and murder is very strong. So is the contrast between her gentle and fragile civilized qualities and their savagery.

George Romney's portrait of Brant presents a different image of a warlike Indian. Brant, a literate Anglican and a Freemason, posed for a number of portraits during his lifetime, including one in 1786 for Gilbert Stuart, always insisting on wearing native costume. He posed for Romney while he was an honored guest at the court of George III and the toast of London society. He bears a tomahawk, but it is not raised. He also wears an army officer's gorget, indicating his rank as a British captain, and a fine linen shirt. He is about to return to America, where he will fight, as his concerned expression suggests. But the war he will wage will be for his people's survival, not a mindless bloodbath. A native and a Loyalist, a figure who rose to fame during the War of Independence, his image is as much a part of the war's iconography as any battle scene, or engraved powder horn, or portrait of a white fighting man wearing blue or red.

SEE ALSO Brant, Joseph; Lexington and Concord; McCrea Atrocity; Princeton, New Jersey; Trenton, New Jersey; Weedon, George; Wolfe, James; Yorktown, Siege of.


Fischer, David Hackett. Washington's Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Montgomery, Charles F., and Patricia E. Kane, eds. American Art: 1750–1800, Towards Independence. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976.

Pearson, Kenneth, and Patricia Connor, eds. 1776: The British Story of the American Revolution. London: Times Books, 1976.

Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the American Revolution. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Young, Alfred F., and Terry J. Fife, eds. We the People: Voices and Images of the New Nation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.


views updated May 29 2018


The creation and promotion of symbols to represent the United States of America was a process that started with the Continental Congress in 1776, which issued a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and charged a committee with designing an official seal for the nation. A complex effort ensued to create usable symbols that would communicate unity of purpose, core principles, and sovereignty. Participants in committees and competitions for designs—for everything from buildings in the federal city to flags, holidays, and currency—drew from familiar European forms to fashion symbols that would serve as reminders of ancient republics and recall revolutionary unity and sacrifice. But the creation of symbols to represent the nation and the people of the United States was not solely a governmental process. Artists, writers, and ordinary citizens also participated in creating symbols and rituals that expressed their vision of the new nation and its future.

revolutionary unity

Many symbols that were to become national had their origins in local efforts to instill revolutionary unity. The "liberty tree" or "liberty pole" became both a symbol of resistance and a physical location for planning that resistance during the war. Following the Revolution, partisan politics surrounded these symbols as they became a rallying site for dissent. In the 1790s inflamed Federalists described them as "sedition poles" to cast the actions associated with them (especially those of Democratic Republicans) not as dissent but as dangerous or even treasonable activities. Likewise, the "liberty cap," derived from the Phrygian cap worn by freed Roman slaves, had a limited life after the Revolution in part because of contemporary politics. Revived in the early 1790s during the initial excitement over the French Revolution, the classically inspired figure of Liberty on the half-cent coin took on a martial appearance complete with liberty cap. As the violence of the French Revolution became distasteful to the wary American government, overt symbols of revolution fell from favor.

images and homages

The figure of "Columbia," sometimes called "America" or "Liberty," was created deliberately to represent the nation. Traditionally Europeans, and particularly the British, had used the figure of an Indian to represent alternately the former North American British colonies or the entire New World. Like the new national figures, the Indian was usually female, with feathered skirt, bare breast, and bow and arrow. The inclusion of a crownlike headdress hinted at the idea

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

of a native aristocracy as personified in the Indian princess. As an American symbol, the Indian figure quickly became relegated to marginal official items such as the Indian Peace Medal, first struck in 1800. Such an item was meant only to be presented to Indians themselves as a mark of formal treaties with the United States; its supposedly Indian features were depicted in a hand clasped in "peace and friendship" below a crossed hatchet and peace pipe. The central image on the medal was that of the current president. After the Revolution, as the nation looked for representative figures, the Indian became undesirable. The founding generation of race-conscious Anglo-Americans looked to symbols they could more readily identify with and that could stand against similar European symbols. In such images Americans sought to reinforce their European origins and keep any lingering provincial insecurities at bay.

The choice of Columbia as the central figure honored Christopher Columbus. Variations on the name "Columbus" appeared everywhere in the 1780s and 1790s. Colleges and towns were named in his honor, and Columbus was a popular subject in poems and songs. The names of scores of newspapers and periodicals such as the Columbian Magazine and Monthly Miscellany and The Columbian Centinel also paid homage. The new federal city would be housed in the Territory of Columbia, and schoolbooks signaled American authorship and content by choosing names like The Columbian Reader.

The search for symbols that might easily communicate the principles and character of the nation went far beyond formal allegorical figures. To counterbalance the feminine figures, the masculine eagle was borrowed from the iconography of the Roman empire to remind all of the link to ancient republics. The committee charged by Congress in 1776 to create a symbol for the nation initiated a six-year process resulting in a Great Seal that held the motto "E Pluribus Unum" (out of many, one) and a central figure of an eagle. The eagle's vigilant stance suggested power and, in the inclusion of a red and white striped shield for a breastplate, an aggressive and even individualistic posture. To mark the number of original colonies, the image included thirteen leaves on the olive branch clutched in one claw and thirteen arrows in the other. The centrality of the motif of thirteen carried over to the national flag. In the version adopted on 14 June 1777 by the Continental Congress, thirteen red and white stripes beside thirteen white stars on a field of deep blue signified the colonies in revolt and, more important, their presumed relationship to one another as equals.

declaration of independence

Read or "proclaimed" in cities and towns in the summer of 1776, the Declaration of Independence achieved its own iconic status. Bonfires, gun salutes (observing the ritual number of thirteen shots), parades, and toasts (again, thirteen) celebrated the document. In the 1790s Democratic Republicans used the Declaration in their own Fourth of July rallies and based their claims to authority on issues of government not only on the document itself but on the party membership of Thomas Jefferson, its author. Under the party system that emerged in the 1820s, both Jacksonian Democrats and Whigs claimed descent from the party of Jefferson and so too a particular guardianship of the Declaration's principles. In 1818 John Trumbull's paintings for the Capitol included the popular and widely reproduced Declaration of Independence, depicting the fateful proceedings at the Continental Congress as imagined by the artist. As the generation who fought the Revolution was dying off, a wave of nostalgia and filial piety swept the nation. Lafayette's visit in 1824, the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in 1825, and the twin deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, inspired commemorative fervor. Jefferson himself asked to be remembered for only three things on his gravestone. The first was his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

the capital

Many Americans fervently desired a capital city to rival those of Europe. That the capital was to be located in the new, independent Columbia Territory (later the District of Columbia) was itself symbolic, because the city would neither depend on nor favor any single state. By 1790 the long, complicated process of designing the city, which would be fraught with competing visions through several administrations, was under way. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a veteran of the Continental Army and a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, developed a city plan that emphasized large lots and wide boulevards to frame imposing buildings, whose design borrowed freely from ancient Roman and Greek architecture. L'Enfant's vision called for numerous allegorical figures to adorn the facades of buildings, but President John Adams found these figures too "pagan" for his simple republican and Christian tastes.

The architect Benjamin Latrobe, whom Thomas Jefferson appointed in 1803 as surveyor of public buildings, modified L'Enfant's designs. Latrobe emphasized classical architectural forms, reduced the allegorical figures that so distressed Adams, and increased the number of eagles, stars, and representations of the Constitution. A primary element of building design in the federal city was symbols of the individual states of the union. The visiting citizen was to be reminded directly of the power of the nation and its component states rather than only abstract ideals. Where Latrobe did retain classical figures, such as the one of Justice and a winged youth, he added eagles in a watchful position and a copy of the Constitution in the youth's hand.


Ritual observance of holidays injected the symbols of the nation into public activities. First celebrated in Philadelphia on 4 July 1777, the Fourth of July became the preeminent national holiday. In 1778 George Washington ordered a double ration of rum for troops to mark the day; by 1783 Boston had enacted legislation officially declaring the day a holiday. The memory of the Revolution was the critical factor in shaping nationalism and political culture. Speeches, sermons, songs, poetry, and newspapers all focused on the ideas of shared sacrifice, heroism, and dedication to the principle of liberty. Grounding Independence Day festivities in tributes to those qualities of national character and founding principles created emotional bonds among citizens as well as to the nation itself. By 1800 public figures across the nation were taking advantage of local Fourth of July celebrations to lend authority to their political positions.

george washington and popular symbols of the nation

Building new traditions on old foundations was often precarious. Washington's position as architect of the military victory in the Revolution and then as its first elected president went beyond simple celebrity and approached the divine. The popularity of and affection for Washington created a climate that was dangerously reminiscent of monarchical cults of personality. In Europe celebrations of the king's birthday were important public holidays; Washington's birthday was celebrated in Virginia in the years after the Revolution and by the 1790s was widely and popularly celebrated across the nation. Upon his death in 1799, following two terms as president and his principled rejection of a third, extravagant public displays of grief included simulated funerals, memorials, needlepoint tributes, and reams of obituaries, songs, and poems. A move was made to bury him within an elaborate tomb in the Capitol itself, but dissenters to this plan included Washington's own family. Another idea floated was to put Washington's face on the penny, but, like the burial plan, this too smacked of monarchical practices.

Ultimately, the penny featured the eagle, and Washington was buried, according to his own wish, at his Mount Vernon home. But the impulse to raise George Washington to the pantheon of the gods found its expression in numerous illustrations, in Horatio Greenough's statue of the president in a Roman toga at the Capitol, in the federal holiday marking his birthday, and in the countless reproductions in schoolrooms across the nation of Gilbert Stuart's famous portrait. Although George Washington was among the elite, the force that propelled his fame and the celebration of his birthday was a product of popular will.

personification of the american people

Although powerful figures—politicians, presidents, newspaper editors—attempted to shape the symbolic elements of nationhood, popular symbols emerged and endured. The personification of the American people and, later, the American government was the natural outgrowth of a society born out of the words "We the People" and whose unfettered press drove political culture.

A prime example of personification is Yankee Doodle. For British soldiers stationed in the American colonies, "Yankee Doodle" was a term of derision that mocked the bumpkin colonists. But during the war the Patriots transformed Yankee Doodle into a symbol of American pride. The high point in this process was the victory over the British at Yorktown, where the troops played the "Yankee Doodle" song at the surrender ceremony to ask, in musical fashion, Who should be ridiculed now?

Following the Revolution, Brother Jonathan arose to fill the need for a figure illustrative of the new citizen of the new United States of America. This character appeared in stage plays and humorous newspaper pieces from the mid-1770s until the mid-nineteenth century. A figure of both energy and common sense, Brother Jonathan looked toward the future and always got the better of the confidence man or elitist who tried to trick or shame him. Northeastern, middle-class, and relentlessly entrepreneurial, Brother Jonathan eventually became less useful as a national figure. As sectional divisions deepened in the 1830s, Jonathan became a victim of politics. Southern periodicals began to use him as a symbol not of an American type but of a despised Yankee type. The figure of Jonathan gradually melded with that of Uncle Sam, who is first found in soldiers' jests during the War of 1812. With a wiry build, large hat, and striped trousers, Uncle Sam shared physical traits and costume with Brother Jonathan. A common element of political cartoons, Uncle Sam was American but less representative of the American people than of the American government itself.


The United States of America, in its unique position as the first popularly created nation, promoted nationalism and sovereignty by means of the images that symbolized its principles. So that individual citizens would identify their interests with both the nation and their fellow citizens, the government needed to forge the affective ties of patriotic devotion. For the uneasy new states, fearing by the late 1780s that they had traded a royal master for a federal master, the constant reassurance that the foundation for the federal government was the individual state was key to binding the states to a common purpose. To the world beyond its borders, the new nation communicated unity of purpose, strength, stability, and, above all, sovereignty by means of its symbols. Thus American iconography contributed not only to its developing culture but to its standing in the eyes of the world.

See alsoAmerican Character and Identity; American Indians: American Indians as Symbols/Icons; Architecture: Public; Art and American Nationhood; Bunker Hill, Battle of; Congress; Continental Congresses; Declaration of Independence; Democratic Republicans; European Influences: The French Revolution; Federalists; Flag of the United States; Fourth of July; Holidays and Public Celebrations; Lafayette, Marie-Joseph, Marquis de; Liberty; Magazines; Music: Patriotic and Political; National Symbols; Newspapers; Washington, D.C.


Kammen, Michael G. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Marling, Karal Ann. George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture, 1876–1986. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Morgan, Winifred. An American Icon: Brother Jonathan and American Identity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988.

Newman, Simon Peter. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Purcell, Sarah J. Sealed with Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986; New York: New York Review Books, 2004.

Schlereth, Thomas J. "Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism." Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (1992): 937–968.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "Dis-Covering the Subject of the 'Great Constitutional Discussion,' 1786–1789." Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (1992): 841–873.

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969, 1998.

Zelinsky, Wilbur. Nation into State: The Shifting Symbolic Foundations of American Nationalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Gretchen A. Adams


views updated May 11 2018


ICONOGRAPHY , art of pictorial representation, specifically, that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with subject matter rather than form.

Before c. 1600

Jewish art and iconography may be said to have come into being with the birth of Judaic culture in the Second Temple period (6thcentury b.c.e.), developing in the Hellenistic period in Judea and the Jewish communities in Galilee. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., Jewish migration helped to spread this art throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Because of this dispersion, no unified Jewish style developed, and Jewish artists adopted the style of their host countries. Nevertheless, it was possible for a specifically Jewish iconography to develop, since Jews throughout the Diaspora maintained close relations with other communities and shared common beliefs, literature, rites, customs, symbols, and institutions.

biblical and midrashic

Any depiction of biblical subject matter from the period of early Judaism should be considered as illustrative of Jewish iconography, although the gestures and images would have been drawn from Classical art. A coin from Apamea (now Dinar) in Turkey (late 2nd–early 3rdcentury c.e.; priv. col.,) depicts Noah and his wife inside and outside the ark with the raven and the dove (Gen. 6:13–8:15); it was probably modeled after wall paintings in the synagogue at Apamea, which claimed to possess parts of Noah's Ark and was therefore named Kibotos, i.e., "Ark." Only the Jews were interested in the complete pictorial cycle of the story of Jonah, since for them he was a symbol of repentance (the book of Jonah is read in the synagogue on the *Day of Atonement) and he was regarded as the man who would bring Leviathan to the Feast of the Righteous.

The scene of the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22) appears on mosaic pavement synagogue floors in *Bet Alfa and *Sepphoris, as well as in the synagogue at *Dura Europos (244 c.e.; Damascus, National. Mus.), alluding to the covenant between God and the People of Israel, guaranteeing their eternal existence. The choice of this scene with its strong national connotations is clearly Jewish.

Non-biblical visual elements are sometimes depicted within biblical scenes. These derive from homiletic rabbinical oral traditions, later compiled as the *Midrash. Several clear examples of scenes based on oral traditions appear in the synagogue of Dura Europos, such as Elijah and the Prophets of Ba'al. This depiction actually predates the written compilation of the text.


Many elements in early Jewish art are not narrative, but symbolic. Symbolic representations of the Temple of

Jerusalem combined with other elements appear many times in early Jewish art. They occur on funerary monuments such as the Jewish catacombs in Rome, *Bet She'arim, and elsewhere, on tombstones, sarcophagi, ossuaries, gold glass plates, clay and bronze oil lamps, Torah plaques, and coins. Even before the destruction of the Temple, its implements were used as symbols of Jewish statehood in a first century b.c.e. graffito found in a priest's house in Jerusalem and on many coins of the Hasmonaean dynasty, the earliest of which is a coin of Mattathias Antigonos (40–37 b.c.e.) with a seven-branched menorah. These symbols include a typical Greco-Roman temple façade, interpreted either as the *Ark of the Covenant in the wilderness or the Torah ark of the synagogue. Other symbols included such sanctuary implements as the *menorah with its shovel, the altars, and the *shewbread table, as well as the two pillars of Solomon's Temple (i Kings 7:15–22), the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron fruit), two of the four species used during the Festival of Tabernacles (*Sukkot). Similar symbolic sanctuary implements appear in Hebrew illuminated Bibles of the 10th century in the Middle East, of the 13th–15th centuries in Spain and of c. 1300 in the Regensburg Pentateuch; indeed, in the Middle East and in Spain the Bible was sometimes referred to as the Temple of God (Heb. mikdashyah).

Sometimes the juxtaposition of scenic and symbolic elements within one composition determines its Jewish character. For example, the signs of the zodiac, not exclusively Jewish, appear with a Temple façade, sanctuary implements, and the scene of the Binding of Isaac in the mosaic floor of the Bet Alfa synagogue. Its recurrence in the synagogue floors of *Hammath (Tiberias) and *Sepphoris (among others), implies a Jewish significance as well.


Most customs depicted before c. 1600 occur in illuminated manuscripts: there are colorful representations in Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Italian prayer books of such rituals, with subject matter varying from illustrations of cooking customs and utensils, the serving of food, and clothes, to rituals in the synagogue or at home. One of the most unique is the initiation of children into the study of the Torah, as represented in the Leipzig Machzor of c. 1320 from southern Germany (Leipzig, U. Bib., ms.v. 1102, i, fol. 131).

classical models and christian imitations

Jewish iconography was initially borrowed from Classical Greek and Roman art. In the scene of the Binding of Isaac at Dura Europos, all of the elements – the altar, the knife, and certainly the protagonists Abraham and Isaac, as well as the ram and the tree – are based on Roman models. Visual iconography may sometimes be similar in early Jewish and Christian art; thus the context relates it to the Jewish sphere when it appears in a synagogue or a Hebrew illuminated manuscript or to the Christian when it adorns a Christian funerary chapel.

Indeed, one of the main problems in the study of early Jewish iconography is the fact that many biblical and midrashic episodes that may have existed in late antiquity have survived in Jewish art only from the later Middle Ages. This gap in Jewish art from the 7th to the 13th century can perhaps be filled in part with the appearance of biblical or midrashic themes in Christian art. Jewish art from this period may have been destroyed during the rise of Islam in the 7th century and the period of Byzantine iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, or as a result of the Crusaders' pillaging and massacre of entire Jewish communities in the 12th century. However, use may have been made of Jewish models, a theory that helps to explain the appearance of Jewish midrashic interpretations in Byzantine and West European art in this period, as well as their reappearance in later Jewish art. For example, a panel from the synagogue at Dura Europos shows the Crossing of the Red Sea, wherein the Israelites are crossing by 12 paths rather than one. The miracle is explained by a midrash that states that each of the tribes wanted to be the first to cross the sea, and so Moses divided it into 12 paths so they could all cross simultaneously. This story later was also used by Christian artists, for example in texts of the 6th-century Byzantine Itinerary of Cosmas Indicopleustes (e.g., Florence, 1000 c.e., Bib. Medicea-Laurenziana, ms. Plus. 9, 28, fol 104; Monastery of St. Catherine, 12th c. c.e., Cod. 1186, fol. 73); and in the Spanish Pamplona Picture Bibles (Harburg, Schloss, 12thcentury ms. 1, 2, lat. 4° 15, fol. 57v). It also appears in the Castilian Duke of Alba Bible (Toledo; Madrid, 1422–33, Duke of Alba priv. col), which was translated from the Hebrew with the help of Rabbi Moses Aragel. The continued use of Jewish iconographic elements in Christian art, probably without conscious understanding, may prove the continuous existence of Jewish art during these obscure centuries and may bridge the gap between early and later Jewish art.

Jewish artists also borrowed iconographical formulae from Christian art, sometimes without knowing the Christian interpretation. The scene of Moses taking his wife Zipporah and their two sons from Midian to Egypt, which is depicted in the 14th-century Spanish Golden Haggadah (London, bl, Add. ms. 27201, fol. 10v) resembles representations of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus on a donkey on the Flight into Egypt. The Jewish artist must have seen French or Spanish illuminated Psalters with Old and New Testament illustrations and adapted them to the Jewish context.

After 1600

The conservative attitude of Jews towards visual art and its role in daily and religious life continued to prevail after 1600, both in Christian Europe and the Islamic world. At the same time, this period witnessed an unprecedented flourishing in the production of costly Jewish art objects, decorated with traditional designs and motifs, side by side with new iconography influenced by Baroque decorative arts. While representational art was extremely popular among the Jews of Italy and Germany, other communities, especially in Islamic lands, imitated the iconoclastic tendencies of the host society.

Artistic activity in this period was concentrated around building and decorating new synagogues and furnishing them with silver and textile ritual objects and with creating attractive decorations and objects for the home and life cycle rituals. The largest selection of visual motifs and iconographic representations, however, is to be found in the book arts. As the written word continued to be central in Judaism, particular attention was paid to producing attractive books and manuscripts long after the tradition of the illuminated, handwritten book declined in Western society. Wealthy Jewish families commissioned myriad parchment manuscripts, in particular Passover haggadot (see *Haggadah), megillot (see *Megillah) and large, single-page manuscripts such as marriage contracts (see *Ketubbah), and various ornamental certificates issued for different occasions.

The single most important object in disseminating Jewish imagery in this period was undoubtedly the illustrated printed book. The easily accessible, inexpensive printed book provided the illuminators of manuscripts and other craftsmen with a wealth of Baroque decorative designs, biblical and ritual episodes, and imaginary architectural motifs. The architectural title page, often incorporating the figures of Moses and Aaron, inspired the decoration of manuscripts and such diverse objects as Torah breastplates, Holy Ark curtains, ketubbot, and even tombstones. The title page of the Amsterdam Passover Haggadah of 1695, illustrated with etchings by the proselyte Abraham bar Jacob, is a good example of a source of popular Jewish imagery, which was profusely imitated throughout the Diaspora from Poland to India.

Not all biblical stories enjoyed equal popularity. The *Akedah or Binding of Isaac, for example, was by far the favorite topic in both manuscripts and three-dimensional objects. In keeping with contemporary ideals in neighboring cultures, biblical heroines, in particular the apocryphal figure of Judith, were often depicted as well. In Italy, Jews incorporated into their art Christian allegorical representations, mythological scenes, and at times even nude female figures. While portraiture had been frowned on in previous generations, from about the mid-17th century more and more rabbis, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, allowed their portraits to be engraved.

Side by side with the new iconography, old themes and traditional symbols were staunchly preserved. Subjects such as Temple implements, especially the menorah, and conventional images of the Solomonic Temple and Messianic Jerusalem were common in many communities. In general, the Hebrew text continued to be a major, if not central, component of Jewish works of art, whether two- or three-dimensional. Traditional motifs constituted the main theme of Jewish art, especially in Eastern Europe. In Poland, for example, representations of the human figure were usually not permitted. Instead, animal motifs, in particular the four "holy animals" mentioned in Pirkei Avot (5:23) – leopard, eagle, deer, and lion – were extremely popular. In Muslim lands geometric and floral decorations and in some cases animal forms were the accepted norm, in both manuscript illumination and ritual objects. Perhaps the sole exception to this rule was Iran, where, under the influence of Safavid art, literary Jewish works written in Judeo-Persian were illuminated in the 17th century on with biblical and other figural representations. Improved techniques in the 19th and early 20th centuries promoted the introduction and dissemination of new biblical scenes and figures, Zionist symbols, and traditional designs on objects such as Mizraḥ tablets, New Year cards, Simhat Torah flags, etc. Other popular new designs in this period included conventional images of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the other holy towns and sites in Erez Israel, which spread from the Holy Land to the lands of the Diaspora and influenced local imagery.


before 1600: F. Bucher, The Pamplona Bibles (1970); I. Fishof, Written in the Stars: Art and Symbolism of the Zodiac, exhibition catalogue (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2001); R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York, 1953–68), esp. vols. ix–xi; J. Gutmann, "Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz; Jewish Messianic Symbols in Art," in: Hebrew College Annual, 39 (1968), 219–30; H. Kraeling, The Synagogue (1956, rev. 1979), viii/l of The Excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report (1943– ); B. Narkiss, "The Leipzig Maḥzor," in: Machsor Lipsiae (1964), 85–110 [facs. and intra.]; idem, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts (1969); idem, The Golden Haggadah (London, 1970) [facs. and intro.]; idem, "A Scheme of the Sanctuary from the Time of Herod the Great," in: Journal of Jewish Art, 1 (1974), 6–14; idem, "The Jewish Realm," in: K. Weitzmann (ed.), Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (1979), 366–94; idem, "The Sign of Jonah," in: Gesta, xviii/l (1979), 63–76; C.O. Nordstrom, The Duke of Alba's Castilian Bible (1967); idem, "Some Miniatures in Hebrew Bibles," Synthronon, ii (1968), 89–105; E. Revel-Neher, L'Arche d'Alliance dans l'art juif et chretien du second au dixieme siecles: le signe de la rencontre (1984); idem, Le témoignage de l'absence: les objets du sanctuaire à Byzance et dans l'art juif du xie au xve siècle (1998); E.L. Sukenik, The Ancient Synagogue of Beth Alpha (1932); idem, The Synagogue of Dura-Europos and Its Paintings (Heb., 1948); K. Schubert, "Jewish Pictorial Traditions in Early Christian Art," in: Jewish Historiography and Iconography in Early and Medieval Christianity (1952), 139–260; S. Sabar, "Midrashei Aggadah in Jewish Art," in: Mahanaim, 7 (1993), 186–95 (Heb.); G. Sed-Rajna, The Hebrew Bible in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts (1987); K. Weitzmann, "The Illustration of the Septuagint," in: H.L. Kessler (ed.), Studies in Classical and Byzantine Manuscript Illumination (1971), 45–74; Z. Weiss et al., "The Synagogue Mosaics," in: The Sepphoris Synagogue; Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts (2005), 55–197; K. Weitzmann and H.L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art (1990). after 1600: r.i. Cohen, Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (1998); A.M. Habermann, "The Jewish Art of the Printed Book," in: C. Roth (ed.), Jewish Art: An Illustrated History (1961, rev. 1971), 163–74; idem, Sha'arei Sefarim Ivriyyim [Title-pages of Hebrew books; in Heb. with Eng. summary] (1969); M. Metzger, "Style in Jewish Art of the 17th and 18thCenturies in Relation to the Baroque and the Rococo," in: Gaz. B-A., lxxxviii (1976), 181–93; V.B. Moreen, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (1985); E. Namenyi, "La miniature juive au xviie et au xviiie siecle," in: rej, 116 (1957), 27–71; C. Roth, "The Illustrated Haggadah," in: Stud. Bibliog. & Booklore, 7 (1965), 37–56; A. Rubens, Anglo Jewish Portraits (1935); idem, A Jewish Iconography (1954, rev. 1981); Illustrated Haggadot of the Eighteenth Century (exh. cat. by H. Peled-Carmeli, Jersualem, Israel Mus., 1983) [in Heb. and Eng]; S. Sabar, "Manuscript and Book Illustration among the Sephardim before and after the Expulsion," The Sephardic Journey, 1492–1992 (exh. cat., New York, Yeshiva U. Mus., 1992), 54–93; idem, Mazal Tov The Illuminated Wedding Contracts from the Israel Museum (1993); A. Yaari, Diglei ha-Madpisim ha-Ivriyyim me-Reshit ha-Defuls ve-ad Sof ha-Me'ah ha-Tesha-Esreh (1943) [in Heb. with Eng. summary]; Y.H. Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History: A Panorama in Facsimile of Five Centuries of the Printed Haggadah (1975).

[Shalom Sabar (2nd ed.)]


views updated Jun 11 2018

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.


views updated May 18 2018

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.


views updated May 18 2018


This entry consists of the following articles:

iconography as visible religion [first edition]
iconography as visible religion [further considerations]
traditional african iconography
australian aboriginal iconography
native north american iconography
mesoamerican iconography
mesopotamian iconography
egyptian iconography
greco-roman iconography
hindu iconography
buddhist iconography
daoist iconography
confucian iconography
jewish iconography [first edition]
jewish iconography [further considerations]
christian iconography
islamic iconography


views updated May 17 2018

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.


views updated Jun 27 2018

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.


views updated May 21 2018

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)