Art History Iconography in the Western World
Colum Hourihane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0044


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. Since iconography concerns itself with the subject matter and meaning of images in a very wide sense, it is nearly impossible to define its boundaries, and the term is now used to refer to areas outside of art history. This article deals exclusively with the Western world and does not refer to recent initiatives in the field in areas such as Asian, Buddhist, Chinese, or Native American iconography. Even though the term iconology was first referred to in the late medieval period and was brought into currency by scholars such as Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky at the start of the 20th century, it is usually seen as a separate area of research and will not be discussed here in detail. Recent work in the field of iconology has been significantly based on an anthropological approach to the work of art and has been spearheaded by such scholars as Hans Belting, Horst Bredekamp, Jean-Claude Schmitt, and others. The boundaries between iconography and iconology have become less clear over the centuries, and it is now frequently impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. In its truest meaning, iconology is the study of the work of art in its broadest context. Iconographical studies have now been applied to material that was previously considered outside of its remit. Instead of looking at traditional subjects such as animals or kingship it has now been applied to concepts such as light, sound, or narrative. This has been brought about because of the more holistic approach applied to studying works of art and our need to encompass elements outside of the work itself that also interact with it. As an intellectual activity, iconography starts with describing or reading an image, finding words that describe the content of that image, documenting what is seen, and trying to understand it. The verbal means we use to describe the visual range, from elaborate, evocative descriptions to short succinct words or codes; and many such standards exist. In the second half of the 19th century, photography began to reproduce works of art in quantity, and this impacted significantly on the development of art history and iconography as academic disciplines. The need to organize image collections into accessible and manageable subdivisions led to the creation of formalized and structured iconographic standards. One of the pioneering centers for the study of iconography is the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton University, which was founded in 1917 and still continues to support and direct research in the field as it has done for close to a century. From the 1940s onward, inspired by the Index and by library systems such as Dewey’s Decimal Classification, Henri van de Waal created the Iconclass system for the classification of iconographic subject matter, now a de facto standard used in many countries. Nowadays, the huge number of digital images has reinforced the need to use some form of subject access. Pattern recognition and automatic image annotation are only two of the directions in which researchers are working. The author would like to acknowledge Hans Brandhorst for his contribution to the article as well as colleagues in the Index of Medieval Art.

History of Iconography

Despite many classic studies on the subject matter of art works, Ripa 1986 is the pivotal study in the history of iconography. This work was followed by a number of significant late 16th-century works, including Alciati 2004, Bolzani 1556, and Cartari 1556. It was not until the start of the 20th century that interest turned once again toward the subject.

  • Alciati, Andrea. A Book of Emblems: The Emblematum Liber in Latin and English. Translated and edited by John F. Moffitt. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.

    New edition includes original Latin texts, as well as English translations for all 212 emblems, each of which is illustrated. Succinct introduction contextualizes the work, and a good bibliography is provided.

  • Ausoni, Alberto. Music in Art: A Guide to Imagery. Translated by Stephen Sartorelli. Los Angeles: Getty, 2009.

    An example from the Guide to Imagery series, published by the Getty Institute. The series deals with a variety of subjects, from astrology, alchemy, and magic to biblical stories and saints in art. Ausoni’s book combines short articles about specific musical instruments or the contexts of the representations of music, with a wealth of expertly annotated illustrations.

  • Bolzani, Perio Valeriano. Hieroglyphica, sive de sacris Aegyptiorum aliarumque gentium litteris commentariorum libri LVIII. Basel, Switzerland: Isengrinus, 1556.

    A “dictionary of symbols” that gives an inventory of meanings attached to all kinds of objects and creatures. In almost 1,000 pages, it deals with many aspects of the visual language of the Renaissance. The original edition, published by Michael Isengin in Basel in 1556, is available online. A French translation published in 1615 by Paul Frellon is available as facsimile, and it has been iconographically indexed online.

  • Cartari, Vincenzo. Le imagini con la spositione de i dei de gliantichi raccolte. Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1556.

    Cartari’s first Italian Mythography was popular enough to warrant twenty-five editions, including various translations, before the end of the 17th century. The first complete translation into English, by John Mulryan, was published recently as Vincenzo Cartari’s Images of the Gods of the Ancients: The First Italian Mythography (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2012). Two online facsimiles are available: offered by the Getty Research Institute (Venice, 1624); and by the University of Heidelberg (Padua, 1626).

  • Daly, Peter M., Virginia W. Callahan, and Simon Cuttler. Andreas Alciatus. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442676138

    Collection of some of the most important editions of Alciatus’s emblem book, with very elaborate indexes. Vol. 1: The Latin Emblems:. Indexes and Lists. Vol 2: Emblems in Translation. Reprinted in 1988.

  • Garnier, François. Le langage de l’image au moyen âge. 2 vols. Paris: Le Léopard d‘Or, 1982–1989.

    Originally developed as the French standard for cataloguing works of art, this manual provides the language of imagery. In two volumes, one of which is dedicated to human postures and gestures, Garnier analyzes the grammar and the vocabulary of this pictorial language and suggests how it was used to communicate its messages (Vol. 1: Signification et symbolique. Vol. 2: Grammaire des gestes).

  • Haskell, Francis. History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    Haskell studies the increasing use of images by historians over the past centuries. Starting with the antiquarians of the 16th century, he discusses the way in which historians gradually came to acknowledge the value of visual evidence. The incorporation of information from visual sources was one of the constituent factors, from the 19th century forward, for the evolution of cultural history. This would have been inconceivable without a growing interest in the subject matter of images.

  • Ripa, Caesare. Iconología. 2 vols. Edited by Piero Buscaroli. Turin, Italy: Fògola, 1986.

    Ripa’s Iconologia is an alphabetically arranged survey of abstract ideas and concepts that could be visualized in an actual image. Ripa supplies relatively precise instructions as to how concepts such as “abundance,” “falsehood,” or “generosity” could be represented. An explanation of the visual properties of the personifications and allegories is also given. The first illustrated edition (Rome, 1603) is available online. An English edition (London, 1709) with 326 illustrations can also be found online.

  • Vovelle, Michel, and Didier Lancien. Iconographie et histoire des mentalités. Paris: Éditions du CNRS, 1975.

    A series of essays, mainly by historians, with an introduction by Michel Vovelle about the way the history of culture and mentality can make use of iconography.

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