Iconography as a field of study
Foundations of iconography
Early Western writers who took special note of the content of images include
Giorgio Vasari, whose Ragionamenti, interpreting the paintings in the
Palazzo Vecchio in
Florence, reassuringly demonstrates that such works were difficult to understand even for well-informed contemporaries.
Gian Pietro Bellori, a 17th-century biographer of artists of his own time, describes and analyses, not always correctly, many works.
Lessing's study (1796) of the classical figure
Amor with an inverted torch was an early attempt to use a study of a type of image to explain the culture it originated in, rather than the other way round.
Iconography as an academic art historical discipline developed in the nineteenth-century in the works of scholars such as
Adolphe Napoleon Didron (1806–1867),
Anton Heinrich Springer (1825–1891), and
Émile Mâle (1862–1954)
 all specialists in Christian religious art, which was the main focus of study in this period, in which French scholars were especially prominent.
 They looked back to earlier attempts to classify and organise subjects encyclopedically like
Cesare Ripa's Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi and
Anne Claude Philippe de Caylus's Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grècques, romaines et gauloises as guides to understanding works of art, both religious and profane, in a more scientific manner than the popular
aesthetic approach of the time.
 These early contributions paved the way for
encyclopedias, manuals, and other publications useful in identifying the content of art. Mâle's l'Art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France (originally 1899, with revised editions) translated into English as The Gothic Image, Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century has remained continuously in print.
In the early-twentieth century
Aby Warburg (1866–1929) and his followers
Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) and
Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) elaborated the practice of identification and classification of motifs in images to using iconography as a means to understanding meaning.
 Panofsky codified an influential approach to iconography in his 1939 Studies in Iconology, where he defined it as "the branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to form,"
 although the distinction he and other scholars drew between particular definitions of "iconography" (put simply, the identification of visual content) and "iconology" (the analysis of the meaning of that content), has not been generally accepted, though it is still used by some writers.
United States, to which Panofsky immigrated in 1931, students such as
Frederick Hartt, and
Meyer Schapiro continued under his influence in the discipline.
 In an influential article of 1942, Introduction to an "Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture",
Richard Krautheimer, a specialist on early medieval churches and another German émigré, extended iconographical analysis to
The period from 1940 can be seen as one where iconography was especially prominent in art history.
 Whereas most icongraphical scholarship remains highly dense and specialized, some analyses began to attract a much wider audience, for example
Panofsky's theory (now generally out of favour with specialists) that the writing on the rear wall in the
Arnolfini Portrait by
Jan van Eyck turned the painting into the record of a marriage contract.
The Ambassadors has been the subject of books for a general market with new theories as to its iconography,
 and the
Dan Brown include theories, disowned by most art historians, on the iconography of works by
Leonardo da Vinci.
Technological advances allowed the building-up of huge collections of photographs, with an iconographic arrangement or index, which include those of the
Warburg Institute and the Index of Christian Art at
Princeton (which has made a specialism of iconography since its early days in America).
 These are now being digitised and made available online, usually on a restricted basis.
With the arrival of computing, the
Iconclass system, a highly complex way of classifying the content of images, with 28,000 classification types, and 14,000 keywords, was developed in the Netherlands as a standard classification for recording collections, with the idea of assembling huge databases that will allow the retrieval of images featuring particular details, subjects or other common factors. For example, the Iconclass code "71H7131" is for the subject of "
Bathsheba (alone) with David's letter", whereas "71" is the whole "
Old Testament" and "71H" the "story of
David". A number of collections of different types have been classified using Iconclass, notably many types of
old master print, the collections of the
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin and the German
Marburger Index. These are available, usually on-line or on
 The system can also be used outside pure art history, for example on sites like