In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Modern European Iconography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Composer Iconographies
  • Portrait Studies of Individual Musicians and Performers
  • History of Performance

Music Early Modern European Iconography
Barbara R. Hanning
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0155


Music has been the performing art most frequently memorialized in the visual arts, resulting in a plethora of images that have the potential to provide insight into the uses and conception of music in an artist’s region and time period. Music iconography is the branch of music history that studies the objects, themes, and subject matter relating to music as they are represented in the visual arts. As initially described, its method involved differentiating among three levels of investigation. The first task was identifying the separate objects represented (instruments, notation, etc.); the second was analyzing their subjects and themes (music-making, dance, love, etc.). These were thought to be the proper application of iconography as distinct from a third level, iconology, which was defined as that branch of cultural history that uncovers aspects of the contextual, social, and historical background of visual themes, sometimes involving recurring allegorical or symbolic motives, mythology and other literary allusions. In other words, iconography was concerned with identification, iconology with interpretation, or discerning the meaning of the work as imparted by its musical references. In recent decades, however, these boundaries have become blurred, and iconography has typically embraced all three levels of investigation. The field of music iconography is relatively new; the nine-volume Grove’s Dictionary of Music, published in 1954, has no entry under Iconography or Iconology, nor any mention of it under Musicology. In 1980, Howard Mayer Brown’s article on Iconography in the New Grove Dictionary of Music identified three main types of “evidence” that works of art can provide about music: the history and construction of musical instruments (organology), the manner of performance of earlier music (performance practice), and the place of music in society (cultural history). To these has been added a fourth type: composer and performer iconographies, which began to appear in the 19th century. Scholars have necessarily cautioned against assuming that representations of music(-making) are accurate sources of information about musical performance and performance practice. An important milestone in the field was the foundation in 1971 of the RIdIM project (the Répertoire international d’iconographie musicale, or International Inventory of Musical Iconography) at the City University of New York, indicative of the musicological community’s heightened awareness of the vast extent of visual material pertaining to music and its attempt to establish indexing and methodological norms. The focus of this article will be early modern Europe, meaning Europe from the Late Middle Ages to about 1800, although the majority of the works cited deal with art of the 16th and 17th centuries in northern Europe and Italy.

General Overviews

Since Howard Brown’s article appeared in The New Grove Dictionary (Brown 1980), the field of music iconography has grown enormously. Brown’s bibliography runs to about sixty items; by contrast, Tilman Seebass’s entry in Grove Music Online (Seebass 2007–2014) probably has more than six hundred items in its bibliography, although his entry discusses non-European as well as European arts. The content of Seebass’s article is correspondingly more expansive, too. Overviews such as Burke 2001, Lash 2007–2014, and Van Straten 1994 are written from an art-historical or historical perspective, and are useful for their explanation of the parent field’s history and basic methodology. Others, such as Winternitz 1972 and McKinnon 1982, discuss musicology’s expectations of the relatively new field of music iconography, which have largely remained unchanged and have been partially realized since these essays were written.

  • Brown, Howard Mayer. “Iconography of Music.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 9. Edited by Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan, 1980.

    Brown’s survey encompasses five aspects: scope and history of the field; history of instruments (organology), a branch of music iconography that was of particular interest to him and others; history of performance; iconography of composers; and intellectual and cultural history. The last is the aspect of the field that has burgeoned most, aiming to reveal “how music was used to illuminate the mythical, philosophical, theological, or educational doctrines of an age” (p. 17).

  • Brown, Howard Mayer, and Joan Lascelle. “What Can Works of Art Teach Us about Music?” In Musical Iconography: A Manual for Cataloguing Musical Subjects in Western Art before 1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674731745

    Brown argues that works of art can help answer questions about musical instruments no longer extant (organology), about the performance of earlier music (performance practice), and about the relationship of music to the culture at large, positions that have since been refined by McKinnon and others.

  • Burke, Peter. Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence. London: Reaktion Books, 2001.

    Issuing appropriate warnings about the potential problems of using images as historical evidence, the author argues in favor of doing so. Some chapter titles are “The Sacred and the Supernatural,” “Photographs and Portraits,” “Views of Society,” and “Visual Narratives.” Although the book is not specifically about music, the chapter titled “Iconography and Iconology” is particularly helpful.

  • Lash, Willem F. “Iconography and Iconology.” In Grove Art Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2014.

    In this survey, the art historian Lash takes a chronological approach to iconography, discussing the history of its practice from the 16th century on, and then summarizing the work of the 20th-century art historians and scholars who defined the field as we know it today. Available online by subscription.

  • McKinnon, James W. “Iconography.” In Musicology in the 1980s: Methods, Goals, Opportunities. Edited by D. Kern Holoman and Claude V. Palisca, 79–93. New York: Da Capo, 1982.

    Argues that music iconography should function as corroborative rather than independent evidence and should not be given credence until verified by other types of evidence—say, archival or literary. The discipline’s most important contributions, in McKinnon’s view, lie in areas such as the social, cultural, and intellectual history of music.

  • Seebass, Tilman. “Iconography.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2014.

    Among other things, Seebass presents a very detailed survey of the types of sources and themes encountered by the student of music iconography. Among the former are manuscript and book illustrations; pictures with no direct textual base; the single, autonomous picture; instruments; stage decorations and record jackets; performance sites; and music inspired by pictures. The latter include a variety of religious themes (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, myths); secular themes; symbolic representations; portraits; and synesthetics (the visualization by a listener of content and process in music). Available online by subscription.

  • van Straten, Roelof. An Introduction to Iconography. Translated from the German by Patricia de Man. Documenting the Image Book Series. Yverdon, Switzerland: Gordon & Breach, 1994.

    Originally presented as the author’s 1985 doctoral thesis in Leiden, this handbook is divided into two main parts, one devoted to theoretical and the other to practical issues, with an annotated bibliography. Van Straten distinguishes clearly between iconography and iconology (not specifically about music), and he provides an analytical essay that illustrates the methodology step by step. The second section devotes a chapter to describing the origin, methods, and goals of the Iconclass system of image classification, the most recent and functional means used by museums worldwide to catalogue iconographical information.

  • Winternitz, Emanuel. “The Iconology of Music: Potentials and Pitfalls.” In Perspectives in Musicology. Edited by Barry S. Brook, Edward O. Downes, and Sherman van Solkema, 80–90. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972.

    The “dean” of music iconology (the interpretation of musical images) in America, Winternitz heightened awareness in this article about the limitations of iconographic evidence, and the variable degrees of pictorial realism in a work of art, by discussing several well-known examples.

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