Iconography in Art History – Definition, History, and Examples

What is Iconography?

Iconography refers to a collection of particular types of images used by artists to communicate deeper meanings in their artwork. Iconographic analysis includes reading images critically in relation to relevant social and cultural values. Iconography is often understood to be a visual language that can teach viewers more about particular cultures and societies, both ancient and contemporary. Iconography is commonly seen within the visual arts but is also used in other academic disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, media studies and cultural studies.

Notable Iconography Artwork

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, The National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait
Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, The National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/jan-van-eyck-the-arnolfini-portrait
William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, 1795-c. 1805, Tate Modern, London. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-good-and-evil-angels-n05057
William Blake, The Good and Evil Angels, 1795-c. 1805, Tate Modern, London. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-good-and-evil-angels-n05057

 

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336228
Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336228
Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah, 1609-10, The National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/peter-paul-rubens-samson-and-delilah
Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah, 1609-10, The National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/peter-paul-rubens-samson-and-delilah
Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946. Private collection. https://www.fridakahlo.org/the-wounded-deer.jsp
Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946. Private collection. https://www.fridakahlo.org/the-wounded-deer.jsp

History of Iconography

The word “iconography” is rooted in the Greek words ikon and graph where the word ikon means “image” and graph means “to write.” Artists, artisans and craftspeople have been using icons and symbols to represent aspects of their cultures and societies for millenia. The earliest icons in visual art would represent religious or mythical figures. As early as the 7th century, images of Jesus Christ were depicted on panels displayed in orthodox Greek churches.

Throughout art history, artists have used symbolic objects as part of their subject matter and the study and interpretation of those symbols is what we know as iconography. An artist’s use of a particular image in their work to symbolize a specific meaning only became part of iconographical study in the 16th century. Emblems and symbols were collected from manuscripts and other forms of literature and their meanings identified, or translated, for the use of artists to use in their artworks, such as still life paintings.

It was not until the 18th century that iconography became widespread. Iconography became a tool that accompanied archaeologists on their digs so that they could classify symbols, subjects and themes in ancient monuments and objects.

Iconography later became a method used to decode religious symbolism in 19th century visual art. Christian icons, such as the lamb and white dove, representing Christ and the Holy Spirit, were among the more popular icons in Western religious art. Eastern religious art, classical European art and secular art all make use of icons and symbolism as well.

However, an icon will have a different meaning when read within a different iconography.  The white dove, for example, is a symbol of the holy spirit in Christian iconography, a symbol of life in Judaism, but is associated with the Greek goddess Venus or Aphrodite in classical mythology.

Iconography in Western Religious Art

In Western art, art historians commonly refer to Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, from 1593, a book of emblems and their meanings, as an influence on the work of artists from the year of its publication onward. As an art historical discipline, iconography developed in the 19th century through the work of scholars who were specialists in Christian religious art: Adolphe Didron, Anton Heinrich Springer and Émile Mâle.

Christian art and Christian iconography were most significantly developed in the Medieval era and Renaissance period. Classical Roman and Greek religious art often included iconography that related to biblical texts. Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, saints and apostles were common icons, with some having variations that signified different narratives pertaining to the life of Christ and the Old Testament.

Christian iconography included intricate symbolic representation beyond simply depicting certain individuals. Many narrative paintings include Christian iconography that is detailed as the gestures, clothing and objects that made certain individuals unmistakeable. St. Peter, for instance, is always depicted with dark, bushy hair and beard, but is also often depicted holding the Keys of Heaven, a fish, or a rooster. Objects and other images are chosen based on the moral of the story told about that holy figure.

Clergy members often commissioned artists to paint very specific religious scenes in great detail. This was especially true in the Romanesque period, where there was much iconographic innovation. The illuminated manuscript, already in use for some time, even saw a dramatic change in the symbols that accompanied the texts.

Old Testament stories are of the more popular scenes depicted in Christian religious art, especially in the Middle Ages. The religious art produced during this time drew from an extensive iconography that helped convey complex religious messages and specific meanings as clearly as possible.

Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck’s contribution to iconography included many elements that spoke to the intermingling of spiritual and material worlds. Van Eyck’s iconography is not the main subject of his work. Instead, it is usually subtly placed among the rest of the imagery. His iconography is symbolic of biblical references that blended with contemporary beliefs. Van Eyck is a notable figure in the use of iconography because his paintings are so intricate and the symbols so subtly placed that the viewer must examine the work very closely to appreciate its true meaning. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, from 1434, is an example of the artist’s classic style.

Iconography in Eastern Religious Art

Much of the religious artwork of Eastern cultures, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, includes an iconography composed of many mudra and asana, or gestures and postures, that hold specific, ritualistic meanings. Much like the kneeling and hands in prayer common in Christian art, these mudra and asana represent divine qualities according to the stories told in sacred texts and scriptures.

In religions such as Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, color plays an important role in iconography, often creating a relationship between a deity and other elements such as air, earth, wind and fire. Color, mudra and asana are also used to convey the mood of a deity. For example, depending on the incarnation, the Hindu deity Vishnu is depicted as angered or appeased, with warm colors used for the former and cool colors for the latter.

Animals and flora are also an important part of Eastern religious iconography. Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, is often associated with the symbol of an elephant, owl, or peacock feather, among other flora such as the red lotus.

Secular and Classical Iconography of European Art

From the Renaissance period onward, secular painting became an increasingly popular alternative to Christian art. Naturally, Renaissance art developed its own iconographic conventions that include history painting, genre scenes, portraits, mythologies and even landscapes.

Many symbols from Renaissance iconography influenced modern media and popular culture, including film, photography, comic books and even political cartoons. Many modern artists referenced iconographies from antiquity, adapting the icons used by earlier artists to their own practices.

Some modern artists even created personal iconographies, where recurring symbols, individuals, themes or settings held significant meaning to the artist. Only those familiar with an artist’s work or life, or both, would be able to understand the significance of each symbol in their personal iconography. Hieronymous Bosch, Francisco Goya, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, William Blake and Frida Kahlo are among the artists with the most extensive personal iconographies.

William Blake’s 18th century personal iconography is a complex exploration of the relationship between humans and the Christian God. In the 19th century, Pablo Picasso developed a personal iconography that was largely autobiographical, using the bull as a symbol in works such as Guernica from 1937. Frida Kahlo’s personal iconography reflects her European and Mexican heritage, where she often infuses Christian iconography into her self-portraits, depicting herself as the Virgin Mary and Saint Sebastian, among others.

Even Pop artist Andy Warhol created an iconography of his own. Warhol’s iconography communicates through celebrity portraits and objects that became American cultural icons, such as Campbell’s soup cans.

In the 20th century, Joseph Beuys used seemingly arbitrary objects to create his iconography. Materials such as felt, fat and honey were used in his artworks as a way to express his ideas about society and life. Evidently, iconography can be complex and meaning can be assigned to a seemingly endless array of objects or people. Still, iconography remains popular in the work of contemporary artists.

Notable Artists Using Iconography

  • Jan van Eyck, c.1390-1441, Belgian
  • Hieronymous Bosch, 1450-1516, Dutch
  • Francisco Goya, 1746-1828, Spanish
  • Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903, French
  • Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, Spanish
  • Joseph Beuys, 1921-1986, German
  • William Blake, 1757-1827, English
  • William Hogarth, 1697-1764, English
  • Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640, Flemish
  • Frida Kahlo, 1907-1954, Mexican
  • Andy Warhol, 1928-1987, American

Related Art Terms

About Amy Meleca, M.A.

Amy Meleca is an artist and educator based in Toronto, Canada. She holds a MA degree in Interdisciplinary Art history from OCAD University and a MA in Education from the University of Toronto. Her experience in the arts includes working as an art writer, researcher, art gallery manager, arts-educator and graphic designer. When not writing or teaching, Amy continues to develop her multimedia artistic practice.