Holbein's The Ambassadors is a complex work whose iconography remains the subject of debate.

Iconography, as a branch of art history, studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style. The word iconography comes from the Greek εἰκών ("image") and γράφειν ("to write"). A secondary meaning (based on a non-standard translation of the Greek and Russian equivalent terms) is the production of religious images, called "icons", in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian tradition; see Icon. In art history, "an iconography" may also mean a particular depiction of a subject in terms of the content of the image, such as the number of figures used, their placing and gestures. The term is also used in many academic fields other than art history, for example semiotics and media studies, and in general usage, for the content of images, the typical depiction in images of a subject, and related senses. Sometimes distinctions have been made between iconology and iconography, [1] [2] although the definitions, and so the distinction made, varies. When referring to movies, genres are immediately recognizable through their iconography, motifs that become associated with a specific genre through repetition. [3][ need quotation to verify]

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. [4]

A painting with complex iconography: Hans Memling's so-called Seven Joys of the Virgin – in fact this is a later title for a Life of the Virgin cycle on a single panel. Altogether 25 scenes, not all involving the Virgin, are depicted. 1480, Alte Pinakothek, Munich. [5]

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) [6] all specialists in Christian religious art, which was the main focus of study in this period, in which French scholars were especially prominent. [4] 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. [6] 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.

Twentieth-century iconography

In the early-twentieth century Germany, 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. [6] 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," [6] 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. [7]

In the United States, to which Panofsky immigrated in 1931, students such as Frederick Hartt, and Meyer Schapiro continued under his influence in the discipline. [6] In an influential article of 1942, Introduction to an "Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture", [8] Richard Krautheimer, a specialist on early medieval churches and another German émigré, extended iconographical analysis to architectural forms.

The period from 1940 can be seen as one where iconography was especially prominent in art history. [9] 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. Holbein's The Ambassadors has been the subject of books for a general market with new theories as to its iconography, [10] and the best-sellers of 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). [11] 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 DVD. [12] [13] The system can also be used outside pure art history, for example on sites like Flickr. [14]

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