In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Iconology and Iconography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Historiography

Renaissance and Reformation Iconology and Iconography
Paul Taylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0161


The words “iconology” and “iconography” are often confused, and they have never been given definitions accepted by all iconographers and iconologists. Panofsky 1955 (cited under General Overviews) defines “iconography” as the study of subject matter in the visual arts and “iconology” as an attempt to analyze the significance of that subject matter within the culture that produced it. This definition was prescriptive rather than descriptive, and many art historians before Erwin Panofsky who would have called themselves “iconographers” were engaged in investigations that Panofsky would have termed “iconological.” Another source of semantic disagreement has arisen from the perceived overinterpretations of Panofsky and his school, which have led some art historians to reject the word “iconology.” It seems useful, nevertheless, to keep a distinction between iconography and iconology, since it draws attention to a fundamental distinction between the study of words and the study of images. While iconology corresponds to the historical criticism of texts in literary studies, iconography has no obvious counterpart outside histories of the visual. At the same time, in art historical practice iconography and iconology feed into each other, as the literature surveyed in this article shows.

General Overviews

Panofsky 1955 is often criticized, but as a pioneering attempt to provide a philosophy of iconology it forms the starting point for later writers who differ from it (Gombrich 1972, Taylor 2008). Gombrich 1975, Hope 1981, and Hochmann 2008 are more concrete studies of the likely significance of Renaissance artworks, but their arguments are intended, in part, to undermine the iconology of Erwin Panofsky’s followers. Van Straten 1994 and Büttner and Gottdang 2006 are less polemical, meant as general introductions to the subject.

  • Büttner, Frank, and Andrea Gottdang. Einführung in die Ikonographie. Munich: C. H. Beck, 2006.

    A reliable survey of European iconography from early Christianity to the 19th century, though the tone is inevitably brisk since it covers the subject in just three hundred pages. The bibliography is useful, if focused on literature in German.

  • Gombrich, E. H. “Aims and Limits of Iconology.” In Symbolic Images. By E. H. Gombrich, 1–25. London: Phaidon, 1972.

    A guide to the pitfalls of iconological research: Gombrich’s concept of “the dictionary fallacy” is a useful one. The volume as a whole contains his most important contributions to Renaissance iconography.

  • Gombrich, E. H. “Topos and Topicality.” Annual Lecture of the Society for Renaissance Studies. Delivered at University College, London, 10 January 1975.

    Argues, against a prevalent trend, that the subject matter of Renaissance art tends to be traditional in nature and unlikely to contain references to contemporary political events.

  • Hochmann, Michel. “À propos de la cohérence des programmes iconographiques de la Renaissance.” In Programme et invention dans l’art de la Renaissance: Actes du colloque de Rome, Villa Médicis, 20–23 avril 2005. Edited by Michel Hochmann, Julian Kliemann, Jérémie Koering, and Philippe Morel, 83–94. Rome: Académie de France à Rome, 2008.

    Develops the argument that Renaissance iconographic programs were intentionally incoherent and inconsistent.

  • Hope, Charles. “Artists, Patrons, and Advisers in the Italian Renaissance.” In Patronage in the Renaissance. Edited by G. F. Lytle and S. Orgel, 293–343. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

    Attacks the idea that humanist advisers were always at hand to tell Renaissance artists what they should be doing.

  • Panofsky, Erwin. “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art.” In Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. By Erwin Panofsky, 26–54. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955.

    In this essay Panofsky drew his widely used distinction among “pre-iconography,” “iconography,” and “iconology.” The same essay, with the word “iconology” rendered as “iconography in a deeper sense,” can be found in Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939).

  • Taylor, Paul. “Introduction.” In Iconography without Texts. Edited by Paul Taylor, 1–10. London: Warburg Institute, 2008.

    An attempt to expand Erwin Panofsky’s three levels of meaning.

  • van Straten, Roelof. An Introduction to Iconography. Translated by Patricia de Man. Yverdon, Switzerland: Gordon and Breach, 1994.

    The first general introduction to the subject. Has a strong bias toward Netherlandish and German art, adds little to the extant secondary literature, and devotes much space to explaining the Iconclass system; but it is clearly written and its commented bibliographies are useful.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.