The history of human beings is defined as one engulfed in icons and symbols. The
capacity of human beings to easily relate to images over words influences how human beings
interact. Most historical artifacts attest to the use of pictograms, icons, hieroglyphs, and graphics
as a means of communication for nearly all human races. Presently, we still utilize symbols as a
mode of communication in the form of emojis, posters, and other arbitrary interface icons in
what is referred to as iconography. Iconography in art history involves the study of subject
matter and the meaning of artworks through the analysis of particular objects or figures. Its
derivation is from the Greek words eikon – image or icon, and graphia – description, sketch.
Accordingly, iconography is the description, distribution, and interpretation of symbols and
subject matter in a work of art. Iconography is mainly essential in the study of religious symbols
and allegorical paintings 1 . Despite it being looked at as a common knowledge concept, how
many people really understand iconography holistically? The proposed study aims at answering
the question by exploring historical foundations of iconography, its evolution over time and its
significance in the contemporary world.
The research wills focus on the development of iconography as a thought in the history of
ideas from the later sixteenth-century Italy where the earliest studies were provided. Due to the
increased significance of iconography, studies are broader and deeper to the extent of addressing
issues such as gender, race, and color neglected before. Published in 1593, Cesare
Ripa’s Iconologia included accounts of over 1250 identifications each of which is outlined in
1 Baca, Murtha. An Introduction to Art Image Access: Issues, Tools, Standards, Strategies. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute,
detail as a guidebook for artists and illustrators during that period. Ripa’s works provide an
insight into the much later studies with the focus on the subject matter in works of art.
What was the role of images in subsequent works of iconography and art history?
Notably, iconology began dealing with the visual facts, and not theory, starting to take on
humanistic associations. It is around this time when the use of iconography widened to
specifically refer to visual (mostly portraits) rather than textual material. The study will
reevaluate iconography; its meaning throughout the twentieth century, its influence on art as a
formal discipline in universities, and the improvement of photographic reproductions. The
establishment of first time photographic and historical art archives such as Witt Library, the
Index of Christian Art, and the Frick Art reference library, meant that an array of visual
resources were ready to study particular themes and subjects. The archives were intended to
provide the stimulus for what could be considered an innovative and insightful approach. In the
first few decades of the 20th century, iconography was viewed in humanistic terms. Researchers
such as Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955) posit iconography as a lynchpin in the perception of
the broader meaning of any historical artwork. The studies by Morey could then be used to
determine the date, style, and a broader socio-cultural position of the work without limitation to
the subject matter.
Who are some of the key artists who shaped iconography? The study will highlight the
works of Emile Male (1862-1954) who dealt with medieval iconography, albeit with French
antiquity artwork. Studies by Male focus on the origins of both Romanesque and Gothic
sculpture, and how they are managed from a nationalistic and religious outlook 2 . His works
assess the entire medieval period as a revisionist movement, from a stylistic and iconographical
2 Mâle, Émile. Le symbolisme chrétien: Exposition. Vichy: La Bibliothèque, 1983.
position 3 . Another contributor is Erwin Panofsky (1892 – 1968), one of the most prominent
scholars of the twentieth century for his critique of methodologies of iconographic studies and
interpretation. His writings incorporate a rare erudition and scope. Panofsky was a humanist in
the broadest sense, writing assorted topics such as Gothic scholasticism, Albrecht Durer, German
sculpture as well as Mozart. His work was significant in conjecturing the methodologies for the
analysis of subject matter which influenced the role of iconography in the following years 4 .
Panofsky’s theories are the product of the historical art period in which he lived, worked, and
inspired by Kantian Philosophies. Kant’s works influenced Panofsky’s ‘Copernican Revolution’
as he asserts that it is the image or representation that makes the object possible. Immanuel
Kant’s sentiment that the human brain plays an active role in perception influenced Panofsky’s
structure as to how the brain perceived images and structured iconology 5 .
There are various levels in which iconography can work, from simple descriptive to the
cultural and symbolic. The study will also scrutinize the descriptive level, which is the easiest of
the levels for the unpredictable nature of images that cause greater issues 6 . Moreover, most art-
historical studies are depicted in one form or another by iconography, the inquiry will deal only
with the historical advancement of the idea, the methodology of classification, and other modern
trends. Since no specific guidelines existed for handling such material, the principles used were
comparable to those of the traditional book archives. The nature of cataloging was on a
3 Kleinbauer, E. W., and P. Thomas Slavens. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Chicago: American Library
4 Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1955.
5 Ferretti, Silvia. Cassirer, Panofsky, and Warburg: Symbol, Art, and History. Translated by Richard Pierce. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1989.
6 Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Translated by Philip Mairet. New York: Sheed and Ward,
nationality basis (French, Italian), followed by the creator's name (Fragonard, Goya) then
partitioned depending on complexity (portraits, landscape, abstract, etc.).
The research will analyze the interpretation and understanding examined in the
psychology and mental processes as regulated by Panofsky’s works on three levels. Firstly, a
description of the factual or expressional idea which stipulates uninterrupted subjects will be
given. Secondly, the iconographical interpretation for the understanding of the subject matter.
The analysis constitutes the world of images, stories, and allegories required to examine pre-
iconographic material. Finally, the most intricate of the three levels is the understanding of the
illusory meaning or content, constituting the world of ‘symbolic values.’ This comprehension
requires awareness of the fundamental inclinations of the human mind and attempts to place the
intrinsic meaning of works within cognizance 7 . Panofsky’s analysis has a greater closeness to
and inspired Roland Barthes’ (1972) semiological order of terminology and structure of ‘sign’,
‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ 8 .
Furthermore, acumen on the positive influences of computerization and technology is
vital. The incorporation of computerization into art history has increased access to relevant visual
material available for such researches. The suggested systems have increased by highlighting the
popularity of subject analysis as a renewed interest in iconography. With the innovations within
the iconographic fields, studies have moved into non-western art that was not extensively
scrutinized. Iconography is generally a broad field in the history of art, and through various
sources by different scholars, this paper will thoroughly review its development through the ages
and time and how relevant it is as a means of cataloging in the modern world.
7 Straten, Roelof van. ICONCLASS, an Iconographic Classification System. Langhorne: Gordon and Breach, 1993.
8 Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Baca, Murtha. An Introduction to Art Image Access: Issues, Tools, Standards, Strategies. Los
Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2002.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Translated by Philip
Mairet. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961.
Ferretti, Silvia. Cassirer, Panofsky, and Warburg: Symbol, Art, and History. Translated by
Richard Pierce. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Kleinbauer, E. W., and P. Thomas Slavens. Research Guide to the History of Western Art.
Chicago: American Library Association, 1982.
Mâle, Émile. Le symbolisme chrétien: Exposition. Vichy: La Bibliothèque, 1983.
Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on Art History. Garden City, New
York: Doubleday, 1955.
Straten, Roelof van. ICONCLASS, an Iconographic Classification System. Langhorne: Gordon
and Breach, 1993.