iconography

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iconography

(ī'kŏnŏg`rəfē) [Gr.,=image-drawing] or

iconology

[Gr.,=image-study], in art history, the study and interpretation of figural representations, either individual or symbolic, religious or secular; more broadly, the art of representation by pictures or images, which may or may not have a symbolic as well as an apparent or superficial meaning.

The Meaning and Significance of Iconography

When first used in the 18th cent. the term was confined to the study of engravings, which were then the standard mode of illustrating books on art and on antiquities in general. But it came shortly to be applied more specifically to the history and classification of Christian images and symbols of all sorts, in whatever medium they happened to be rendered originally or in whatever way they were reproduced for study.

With the rise of the systematic investigation of art from prehistoric ages to modern times, it became apparent that each major phase or epoch in which figural representations occur had created and developed in varying degrees of richness and elaboration an iconography of its own. As used today, therefore, the term is necessarily qualified to indicate the field of iconographic study under discussion—e.g., the iconography of the various Egyptian deities, the iconography of Roman imperial portraits, early Christian iconography, Buddhist or Hindu iconography, Byzantine iconography, Gothic iconography.

As a method of scholarly research the science of iconography strives also to recover and express the thought from which a given convention of representation has arisen, particularly when the convention has assumed the value of a symbol. The importance of identifying motifs is central to iconographical interpretation. For example, St. Catherine of Alexandria is traditionally portrayed in the presence of a wheel. This wheel is a familiar attribute that serves to identify her and that at the same time signifies a miracle connected with her martyrdom. Some attributes are more difficult to understand, and their obscurity has led scholars to consult other images or literary sources in order to interpret the motif more satisfactorily.

Certain themes characteristic of a specific philosophy have been commonly represented during an era, and an iconography has been developed to express them. An example is the still life vanitas vanitatum of the Middle Ages, a reminder of the transitory quality of earthly pleasure symbolized by a skull, candle, and hourglass (or, in later versions, a watch). In every living art the conventions and symbols, as well as their meanings, change with the passage of time and the growth of ideas; many disappear, while others become almost unintelligible to a later generation and can be recovered only by intensive study. Among the foremost scholars in iconographic studies are Didron, Émile MâleMâle, Émile
, 1862–1954, French art historian. Mâle pioneered the study of French art of the Middle Ages, its forms, and especially the Eastern sources of sculptural iconography of the cathedrals of France.
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, Aby Warburg, and Erwin PanofskyPanofsky, Erwin
, 1892–1968, American art historian, b. Germany, Ph.D. Univ. of Freiburg, 1914. After teaching (1921–33) at the Univ. of Hamburg and serving as professor of fine arts at New York Univ.
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.

Christian Iconography

By reason of its long history and the dynamic concepts that controlled it, the growth of Christian iconography is rich and varied. Beginning with the catacomb frescoes in the early centuries of the Christian era, it deals with the perils faced by the human soul on earth in its journey toward eternal salvation. Figures from the Old Testament (e.g., Abraham, Judith and Holofernes), episodes from the life and passion of Jesus (e.g., the Nativity, the Descent from the Cross, the Pietà), scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary (e.g., the Sacred Conversation, the Visitation), scenes from the lives of the saints (e.g., St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, the Martyrdom of St. Agatha), and symbolic scenes of ultimate beatitude (e.g., the Majesty, the Savior of the World, the Coronation of the Virgin), all reveal the same purpose—to repeat in many forms and inculcate in every mind the moral aims and fundamental dogmas of the Christian religion.

A long series of evolutionary stages unfolds in the representation of a given person or scene from the art of the catacombs to that of the Gothic cathedrals. Thus the art of the Middle Ages is above all a kind of sacred writing whose system of characters, i.e., the iconography, had to be learned by every artist. It was governed also by a kind of sacred mathematics, in which position, grouping, symmetry, and number were of extraordinary importance and were themselves an integral part of the iconography.

From earliest times Christian iconography has likewise been a symbolic code, showing the faithful one thing and inviting them to see in it the figure of another. Some examples are: the dove, which figures the Holy Spirit; the fish, symbol of Christ, from the Greek icthus, an anagram for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior; the monkey or reptile as symbol of evil; and the bowl or pitcher of water and the vase of lilies that signify the Virgin's purity in the Annunciation scene. In Christian art, form is thus the vehicle of spiritual meaning; in the expression and reading of this meaning lies the essence of Christian iconography.

Bibliography

See E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1939, repr. 1962); G. Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (2d ed. 1955); A. N. Didron, Christian Iconography (2 vol., tr. 1851–86, repr. 1965); G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art (tr. 1971).

Iconography

 

in the fine arts, a strictly established system of representation of either persons or narrative scenes. Iconographic systems originated in ancient times as a result of the bond between art and religious worship and ritual. Mandatory adherence to iconographic canons was established to depict figures and scenes that were easily recognizable and to coordinate principles of pictorial representation with prevailing theological concepts (iconography of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and festivals in Christian art and of Buddha and bodhisattvas in Buddhist art). Over the centuries art became enriched with new content, and iconographic schemes gradually changed. In Europe during the Renaissance, the secularization of art, the development of realism, and the creative individuality of artists brought about not only free interpretation of old iconographic schemes but also the appearance of new, less strictly regimented schemes.

In art studies iconography is the description and systematiza-tion of typological conventions and schemes used in the representation of either persons (real or legendary) or narrative scenes. In France and Germany in the 1840’s, the method of iconography developed as a means of studying medieval art; by interpreting symbols, allegories, and attributes it was possible to study its sources and ties with religion and literature. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian art historian N. P. Kondakov used an iconographic method to study Byzantine traditions in medieval Russian art. The American scholar E. Panofsky advanced iconography as the basis of a method of research dealing with the subject matter of works of art. He used this method to determine the significance and meaning of the subject matter within a particular culture and to uncover the world outlook that it reflects. In order to obtain a true understanding of a work of art, it is necessary to regard iconography not as an end in itself but as a system in conjunction with comprehensive research of the social and aesthetic aspects of art.

In historical science, iconography is a system of methods and conventions used to identify and to determine the authenticity and date of execution of the portrayal of a particular historical figure or event. In the 20th century, the principles of historical iconography are also applied in the study of photography and cinematography.

Another meaning of iconography is the aggregate of portrayals of a particular person (for example, of a writer or political leader—V. I. Lenin, A. S. Pushkin, or the Decembrists). Iconography also designates the totality of subjects and artistic trends of a particular epoch.

REFERENCES

Sovremennoe iskusstvoznanie za rubezhom: Ocherki, Moscow, 1964.
Istoriia evropeiskogo iskusstvoznaniia, book 2. Moscow, 1969.
Panofsky, E. Studies in Iconology. New York, 1939.
Reau, L. Iconographie de I’art chretien, vols. 1–3. Paris, 1955–59.
Aurenhammer, H. Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie. Vienna, 195–967.
Wessel, K. Reallexikon der byzantinischen Kunst. Stuttgart, 1963.
Grabar, A. Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. Princeton, 1968.

K. G. BOGEMSKAIA

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