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Iconology and Iconography


The terms iconology and iconography are derived from the Greek word for image (είκών) combined with either the word for writing (γράφειν, to write, thus iconography) or with the word for reason and thought (λόγος, thus iconology). The two terms are closely connected and have often been used interchangeably. However, different meanings can be attributed to each term.

Iconography ordinarily refers to historical documentation through imagery. Portraiture is an important aspect of image documentation, and thus in archeological circles the term iconography is used to denote the study of historical portraiture, which by its nature is closely connected with numismatics. But to the art historian iconography generally refers to the description of an image or representation; the term is used either to describe an independent work of art or collectively to designate all the representations of a single subject matter.

For years the word was given the meaning more properly attributed to iconology, namely, the extended explanation of the deeper implications of the subject represented in a picture, sculpture, etc. For practical reasons, in order not to complicate matters further, some authors (e.g., J. J. M. Timmers) prefer to avoid the term iconology. At the end of the 16th century, Cesare Ripa, one of the first users of the term iconology, gave it a meaning completely different from the modern one. For Ripa iconology consisted of the description of the symbols and personifications used in emblems and allegories for the purpose of aiding artists.

Since the studies of Erwin Panofsky in 1930, iconology has come to mean the explanation of the work of art in its entire historical context as an unmistakable symptom of a specific situation in the history of culture and human ideology. The preparations for this explanation are then called pre-iconography, which is the determination of the primary, natural meaning of things; and iconography, which is the subsequent determination of their secondary conventional meaning as allegories (see the Panofsky schema below).

In 1952 Creighton Gilbert added yet another nuance to the meaning of the word iconology. According to him, iconology was not the actual investigation of the work of art but rather the result of this investigation. Hans Sedlmayr makes the distinction between sachliche and methodische iconology. Thus sachliche iconology refers to the "general meaning of an individual painting or of an artistic complex (church, palace, monument) as seen and explained with reference to the ideas which take shape in them." Methodische iconology, on the other hand, is the "integral iconography which accounts for the changes and development in the representations."

Each of the various definitions of iconography and iconology is only partially acceptable. And although reviewing the series of definitions clarifies the matter, in practice one cannot work simultaneously with all definitions. The discussion presented by G. H. Hoogewerff [Ikonographie en Ikonologie (Gravenhage 1950)] provides clarification:

Iconography amounts to a description of the works of art and a systematic division according to the subject matter represented. Its approach is descriptive, but when applying detailed observations it becomes analytical. It points out and determines existing differences. It is not its task to make any further distinctions. It is synoptical only insofar as it observes existing and always external connections between motifs. Iconology, on the other hand, consists of the investigation and explanation of the meaning of the representations. Its purpose is to explain as much as possible its meaning and essence. It uses pre-iconographical observation and from the results it not only tries to recognize as such the themes which are represented, but whenever feasible and in so far as possible, it tries to penetrate them. It does not decipher: it analyzes. Its method is truly synoptical and exegetical.

Hoogewerff further observes that outstanding iconographers have not limited themselves to describing and classifying images, but have in fact if not in name practiced iconology.


It is noticeable that Hoogewerff in the explanation quoted above does not use the term "science," but other statements in the same work reveal that he considered both iconography and iconology to be sciences. If it is agreed that science is the systematically ordered integration of a specific knowledge and of the methods according to which this knowledge can be developed, then both iconography and iconology as described by Hoogewerff can be considered sciences and hence deserve the academic chairs that they have received. Nevertheless they remain subdivisions of art history and are related in a somewhat less immediate sense to the history of civilization.

The field of art cannot reject iconography or iconology under the pretext that they are concernedand sometimes by preferencewith objects that no longer, or do not yet, belong to the realm of art, such as a simple popular design or an artistically inferior but clearly legible copy. The latter are not goals in themselves, but merely instruments in reaching, not only precise accreditation, dating, localization, and stylistic classification, but especially a deep insight into the meaning and objective of true art works. Thus, they answer the common questions: why did the artist do this, what is he telling us consciously or unconsciously, to what does he want to move us, either consciously or unconsciously? These are questions that even the most abstract work of art cannot avoid. When iconography and iconology at times attempt to reply to these questions by means that lie outside the realm proper to art, then, mutatis mutandis, they act no differently than the science that examines the chemical formula of a specific paint, not as a phenomenon that has something to do with the essence of art, but simply in order to understand better and to enjoy the work of art in its totality.

Naturally, iconology and iconography demand a strict discipline of thought. This particularly applies to iconology, in which imagination and intuition play a role. If these are not constantly tested against the factual data, then it is only too easy to lose oneself in unscientific fantasy. Erwin Panofsky stressed this in both theory and practice.


Iconography and iconology are relatively young sciences. The beginning of iconography can be traced to 16th-century works such as those of Achilles Statius [Inlustrium virorum ut extant in Urbe expressi vultus (Rome 1569)] from Portugal and Fulvius Ursinus [Imagines et elogia virorum inlustrium et eruditorum (Rome 1570)] from Italy. Both were archeologists with particular interest in portraiture. Their work was followed by the Iconographia (1669) of G. A. Canini.

Preoccupation with this particular form of iconography was not widespread until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Germany produced a number of scholars: J. J. Bernoulli [Römische Ikonographie (Stuttgart 188294) and Griechische Ikonographie (Munich 1901)], P. Arndt [Griechische und Römische Porträts (Munich 1891)], and A. Hekler [Die Bildnisskunst der Griechen und Römer (Stuttgart 1912)]. Meanwhile, the kindred science of numismatics was pursued in France by H. Cohen (180880) and E. Babelon (18541924). In England from 1923 on, H. Mattingly, E. A. Sydenham, and C. H. V. Sutherland published standard works on these matters. Although their studies were oriented toward archeology, they made an important contribution to the development of iconography as an integral part of art history. Accordingly, a work of art was viewed not only from the standpoint of aesthetics, but also from that of history and of the work's didactic intent. This concurred with the then existing desire for a reclassification of collected material on the basis of concrete and objective characterizations.

Because of the lack of sufficient graphic material and photographic documentation, minute descriptions of the art works were required. At the same time, in connection with archeological research, attention was paid to the classification of works on the basis of subject matter. The first to use this iconographical method was Ph. de Caylus [Recueil d'antiquités (Paris 176167)]. Johann J. Winckelmann [Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (Dresden 1764)] strongly opposed him by stating that the artistic elements and style of a work of art are more important than its antiquarian and hermeneutic character. In spite of this E. Q. Visconti [Iconographie ancienne (Paris 181129)] and F. de Clarac [Musée de sculpture antique et moderne (Paris 185053)] continued to use the method of classification by subject. Scientific contributions were made by specialists in the restoring of objects (e.g., B. Cavaceppi, 1786). Iconographical investigations were linked also with the comparative philological investigations of relevant texts. In this respect J. Overbeck [Gallerie heroischer Bildwerke der alten Kunst (Brunswick 1853); Griechische Kunstmythologie (Leipzig 187189)], H. von Brunn [Geschichte der griechischen Künstler (1883)], A. Furtwängler [Die antiken Gemmen (Berlin 1900)], and A. della Seta [Il nudo nell'arte (Rome 1930)] aided the advancement of iconography.

The Stimulus of Christian Art. Early Christian art lent itself to archeological iconography, since objects found did not have their own stylistic character but in primitive manner imitated the forms of their environment. Their specific value was derived from their content, which was related to religious beliefs and meanings. It is natural when investigating the content of Christian art to seek explanatory texts not only in the Bible and the Fathers, which are so important for early Christian art, but also in other valuable sources such as the medieval works of walafrid strabo and Berchorius (Reportorium morale ), liturgical writings such as the Rationale by Durandus, compilations of saints' lives such as Legenda aurea by james of voragine, and the Speculum of vin cent of beauvais.

Although religious art activity in the East was often controlled by canones, that of the West revealed a freedom and a progressive development.

Johannes Molanus (Jan Vermeulen) was one of the first Christian iconographers. His De picturis et imaginibus sacris (Louvain 1570) was written with the intention of prescribing to artists how they might correctly (in the spirit of the Counter Reformation) represent Biblical, hagiographical, liturgical, and other religious subjects. In this field he fulfilled the role that Cesare Ripa would later play in the field of secular art. According to present-day thinking, Molanus is somewhat rationalistic and does not leave much room for feeling or fantasy. This lack is understandable when judged against the background of the confusion of Christian iconography of the Middle Ages and the period of Mannerism. The same spirit is evident in the 1679 reformatory treatise of P. Rohr, Pictor errans.

The rediscovery of the catacombs was an important event in the development of Christian iconography. In 1578 the Spanish historian Alphonso Ciacconio (Chacón) chanced upon the Coemiterium Jordanorum on the Via Salaria. This stimulated Philips van Winghe from Louvain and Hendrik de Raeff from Delft to further research in the same century. However, systematic research was not started until 1593 by Antonio Bosio whose work Roma subterranea was published posthumously in Rome in 1632.

The Legenda aurea lost its supremacy when systematic work in hagiography was initiated by a group of Jesuits from the southern Netherlands, the so-called bollandists; their work was realized in the continuing Acta Sanctorum (1643).

French Studies. There was little advance during the period of the Enlightenment, but the beginning of the 19th century saw renewed interest in early Christian art. In France, under the influence of the Catholic "revival" of Chateaubriand and others, interest in early Christianity was initially apologetical and religious rather than directed to art history. Yet important works in iconography were published in time by J. Seroux d'Agincourt [Histoire de l'art par les monuments (Paris 181033)] and A. N. Didron [Iconographie chrétienne (Paris 1843)]. The latter attained special fame by the publication in 1845 of the so-called "Painter's Book of Mount Athos," an 18th-century MS that leaned, however, on early Christian iconographical traditions. Then followed iconographic studies by C. Cahier and A. Martin, C. Rohault de Fleury [Archéologie chretiénne: Les saints (Paris 18901900)], X. Barbier de Montault, E. Le Blant, and L. Bréhier. Next came the Byzantinists G. Millet, C. Diehl, and André Grabar. The Dictionnaire d' archéologie chretiénne et de liturgie by the Benedictines F. Cabrol and H. Leclerq, which appeared between 1907 and 1953 in 15 parts (30 volumes), constitutes the most valuable single source of iconographical data. With some reservation about incomplete documentation, the reference works of L. Réau are also an invaluable source. Emile Mâle has produced expert studies of iconography of religious art after the 12th century in France. His works [L'art religieux du XIII e siècle en france (Paris 1898); L'art religieux après le concile de Trente (Paris 1932)] are still being reprinted. Canon V. Leroquais produced outstanding studies (194041) on the illuminated liturgical MSS, and P. Thoby has studied the development of the crucifix (1959).

Germanic and Central European Scholarship. The interaction between the religious thoughts expressed in the literary and plastic arts was indicated by A. Springer [Ikonographische Studien (Vienna 1860)] and F. Piper [Mythologie und Symbolik der christlichen Kunst (Weimar 184751)]. Important work was done also by F. F. Leitschuh and J. J. Tikkanen. The latter was a Finn who published in German and is known, among other things, for his intensive studies on Eastern and Western Psalters, particularly the Psalter of Utrecht (1900). Several decades later K. Künstle [Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst (Freiburg 192628)] and the Jesuits S. Beissel and J. Braun, hagiographer-liturgist, began to attract notice.

The works of F. X. Kraus, H. Detzel, and R. Garrucci [Storia dell'arte cristiana (Prato 187281)] can be viewed as an introduction to the publications of Joseph Wilpert [Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms (Freiburg 1903); Die Römischen Mosaiken und Malereien (Freiburg 1916); I sarcofagi cristiani antichi (Rome 192936)], who at the same time continued to build on the extensive research performed by Giovanni B. de Rossi in the Roman catacombs and elsewhere [La Roma sotterranea cristiana (Rome 186477); Musaici cristiani e saggi dei pavimenti della chiesa di Roma anteriori al secolo XV (Rome 187296)]. Victor Schultze turned in revolt against the religious and apologetical tendencies of this group, and Josef Strzygowski opposed their one-sided orientation in a study pointedly entitled Orient oder Rom (1901). However, in the long run his Oriental theories can be considered to be just as onesided. Nearly the same point of view was adopted by Oscar Wulff, N. Kondakov from Russia, and L. H. Grondijs, professor of art history at the University of Utrecht.

Rafael Ligtenberg, OFM, who laid the foundation of iconographical-iconological studies in the Netherlands, was followed by Grondijs and G. J. Hoogewerff. Research was undertaken at the Catholic University of Nijmegen by J. J. M. Timmers [Symboliek en iconografie der christelijke kunst (Roermund-Maaseik 1947)], J. B. Knipping [De iconografie van de contrareformatie in de Nederlanden (Hilversum 193940)], and above all F. van der Meer.

American and English Work. There was much activity also in the English-speaking countries, by E. Baldwin Smith [Early Christian Iconography (Princeton 1918)] and the excellent medievalist F. Wormwald. In 1947 Charles Rufus Morey founded the Department of Art and Archeology at Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.

He was instrumental in founding the Index of Christian Art, which initially contained entries only of early Christian art but now goes to 1400. Copies of this reference work (under continuing compilation) can be found in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C., in the Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Christiana in Rome, and since 1963 in the Rijksuniversiteit in Utrecht. Princeton has beautiful facsimile editions in this field, edited by E. T. De Wald, K. Weitzman, M. Avery, and others. O. M. Dalton and D. Talbot Rice are specialists of Byzantine art; Byzantine art scholarship is represented in the work also of Greek scholars such as F. Sotiriou and M. Chatzidakis.

Secular Iconography. Secular art, as well as Christian, attracted diligent iconographers. In France P. L. Duchartre, R. Saulnier, and P. Saintyves described imagery in popular art, which, in addition to devotional pilgrimage souvenirs, includes objects of everyday life, e.g., housewares, kitchen utensils, clothing.

In the Germanic and Scandinavian countries an interest developed in the original Germanic style and decoration motifs. It was expressed by F. Adama van Scheltema (1924), W. A. von Jenny (1933), and also Josef Strzygowski. Particular contributions to the iconography of secular art qua talis were made by R. van Marle [Iconographie de l'art profane (The Hague 193132)] and Guy de Tervarent [Attributs et symboles dans l'art profane, 14501600 (Geneva 195859)].

It was only natural that in this age of evolving cosmopolitanism, interest would extend beyond Europe. The art of India with its characteristic form and religious content was iconographically examined in the 19th century by J. Fergusson, J. Burgess, and Alfred Foucher [Étude sat l'iconographie bouddhique de l'Inde (Paris 190005)]. Studies in the 20th century were published by E. A. G. Rao, A. K. Coomaraswamy, J. N. Banerjea, and H. Zimmer. O. Sirèn and E. Chavannes delved into the Buddhist art of China, while George Coedès, W. F. Stutterheim, R. von Heine-Geldern, and P. Mus pursued that of Indo-China and Indonesia. Giuseppe Tucci, Antoinette Gordon [The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism (New York 1939)], and others examined iconographical phenomena in Central Asia. The art of Japan was treated by indigenous scholars, especially Anesaki and Ōmura Seigai. Ancient Judaic symbolism was extensively described by E. R. Goodenough [Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 11 v. (New York 195364)].


As has already been explained, iconographical development was consistently and necessarily under the influence of what today would be called iconological research. To some extent this applies to each branch of art history, but most of all to the study of early Christian and Indian art works, which were closely linked with religious, social, and historical ideologies. However, not until the early 20th century, was iconology considered to be a discipline distinct from iconography. Until then the term iconography had been used as a label for both disciplines. The term iconology had quite a different meaning from that understood today when it was first used in 16th-and 17th-century handbooks on symbols, allegories, personifications, emblems, etc., as for instance, the handbooks of A. Alciati (1548), J. P. Valeriano (1556), and P. Picinelli (1695). Its initial designation has been discussed above in reference to the most famous of these handbooks, namely the Iconologia (Rome 1593) by Cesare Ripa. The same meaning as Ripa's can be found in J. Lacombe's Dictionnaire iconologique (Paris 1756), namely the description, for the convenience of artists, of symbols and personifications used in emblems and allegories.

Schools of Thought. Hippolyte Taine, in the mid-19th century, studied the relationships between art objects and the race and social class of their creators and the historical circumstances of their inception. Subsequently, E. Müntz [L'Histoire de l'art pendant la Renaissance (Paris 188995)] and others viewed iconographical matter more explicitly against the background of social, technical, and stylistic conventions.

In comparing the various schools of iconographical and iconological thought, one finds them classifiable according to the element of art that they considered primary. The positive-visual school emphasized stylistic qualities and reduced iconography to the realm of a secondary or auxiliary science. This was the viewpoint of L. Venturi [Storia della critica dell'arte (Rome 1945)]. Max Dvořák qualified that idea and formulated a doctrine that was acceptable to many scholars. Although he himself was a disciple of the classical visual school of A. Riegl, he saw a connection between the artistic composition and the religious and philosophical content of a work of art. He predicted a shift to a method of iconographical interpretation that would be very searching. Similar statements were made by H. Tietze and P. Toesca.

The development of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century corroborated and directed the method of interpretation. It forced the analysis of art works to the deepest, even unconscious sources of their origin and the meanings connected therewith. S. Freud applied his system to iconographical interpretation and thereby made it available to the field that has come to be known as iconology. Pioneers of the modern science of iconology are Aby Warburg (Nachleben der Antiken ), Fritz Saxl, and Erwin Panofsky.

Erwin Panofsky. Aby Warburg used the term iconology in its new meaning as early as 1907, as has been proven by recent research by W. S. Heckscher. Hoogewerff formulated his definition of this concept in 1928. He was followed by Panofsky, who in 1930 in his introduction to Hercules am Scheidewege set forth some basic principles of the new method. He further developed this in 1932 in the philosophical journal Logos. But it was especially in the introduction to his now famous Studies in Iconology (New York 1939) that he revealed himself the great theorist in this field. According to Panofsky, iconology is a method of interpretation that arises from synthesis rather than from analysis. For him, just as the correct identification of motifs is the prerequisite of correct iconographical analysis, so the correct analysis of images, stories, and allegories is the prerequisite of correct iconographical interpretation, unless it is a question of works of art from which the whole sphere of secondary or conventional subject matter is eliminated, as is the case in certain landscape, still life, and genre paintings, as well as in nonobjective art. The interpreter must possess practical experience (familiarity with objects and events) and he must have a knowledge of the history of styles (insight into the manner in which, under changing historical conditions, objects and events are expressed by forms). For further iconographical analysis he must have knowledge of literary sources and be familiar with the history of types and iconographical themes. Finally, for iconological interpretation, he will need to have the so-called "synthetic intuition" (familiarity with the basic drives of the human mind as well as deep understanding of the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, these basic drives are expressed by specific themes and concepts). This approach by Panofsky can be best understood through the outline he published originally in Studies in Iconology.

The objections that can be made against these theories, at least in their most extreme forms, have already been mentioned. The greatest difficulties lie in the art after the Renaissance. The medieval artist thought in symbols that in general were easily understood. But after the beginning of the 15th century, naturalistic realism, of which the new emphasis on perspective is an example, became dominant in art. At first, however, this realism was still in the service of a thousand years of Christian tradition. The result was a veiled symbolism in which it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to decide where the symbol begins and reality ends. This explains why Panofsky tempered his statements on works of the period.

The spreading of his ideas to England and to America resulted to a great extent from the transfer in 1933 of Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg from Hamburg to London, where it is presently kept in the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, as well as from the departure to the New World of several German iconologists, among whom were Aby Warburg and Panofsky himself. The Netherlands also felt the effects of his widening influence. In 1955 Utrecht instituted a chair of iconology and W. S. Heckscher placed an Index Iconologicus alongside the copy of the Princeton Index of Christian Art. H. van de Waal, an art historian from Leiden, applied iconological interpretation to the paintings of the Dutch school of the 16th and 17th centuries, which are usually considered to be purely realistic.

Finally, the iconological interpretation of architecture was pursued by E. Panofsky, E. Baldwin Smith, R. Wittkower, R. Krautheimer, H. Sedlmayr, and others. In 1956 A. Pigler analyzed baroque motifs, and the Zentral Institut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich construed an index of baroque ceiling decorations that are characterized by complicated types of iconographical programs.

For specific iconographic themes, see god the fa ther, iconography of; trinity, holy, iconography of; holy spirit, iconography of; jesus christ, ico nography of; mary blessed virgin, iconography of; saints, iconography of; evangelists, iconography of; sacraments, iconography of; icon; etc. For problems related to the use of image in Christianity see images, veneration of; iconoclasm.

Bibliography: m. dvoŘÁk, Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte (Munich 1924), posthumous. k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 2 v. (Freiburg 192628). a. warburg, Gesammelte Schriften (Leipzig-Berlin 1932). r. van marle, Iconographie de l'art profane au moyen-âge et à la Renaissance, 2 v. (The Hague 193132). f. saxl, Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art (Metropolitan Museum Studies 4; New York 1933) 228280. e. panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York 1939). j. b. knipping, De iconographie van de Contrareformatie in de Nederlanden, 2 v. (Hilversum 193940). j. j. m. timmers, Symboliek en iconographie der Christelijke kunst (Maaseik 1947). g. j. hoogewerff, Ikonographie en Ikonologie van de oude christelijke kunst (The Hague 1950). d. t. rice, Byzantine Art (Baltimore 1962). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559). w. s. heckscher and k. a. wirth, "Emblem, Emblembuch," Reallikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, ed. o. schmitt v.5 (Stuttgart 1959) 85228. j. bialostocki, Encyclopedia of World Art (New York 1959) 7:769785.

[j. h. a. engelbregt]

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