What Is Iconography

What Is Iconography? – Learn About Iconography in Art History

What is iconography? And where does the word come from? When examining iconography, art history is the best place to do so and you may be surprised at how often iconography is used. In this article, we will unpack the meaning of the word “iconography”, as well as two famous examples of iconography art that will help you understand how iconography has been used in art history. Read on for more about the nuts and bolts of iconography!



Understanding Iconography in Art History

The word “iconography” is a word you may hear often in not only an academic context but in popular culture and media references as well. At first, the word may seem like a long-winded concept that requires extensive unfolding and you may find yourself wondering “What is the history of iconography?”. You would be correct in taking the first step to building your understanding by asking such questions.

Famous Iconography in ArtArnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck; Jan van Eyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most popular periods in the development of icon-based works was the Byzantine period or Roman-led Byzantine era, which saw debates around whether religious images should be reproduced in art and venerated. This was known as the iconoclast vs. iconophile debate, which saw iconophiles agreeing on the use of religious figures in images as images produced in honor of God as opposed to worshiping the icons directly. Early artists then incorporated what art historians refer to as “iconographic attributes”, which are used to identify religious figures in art.

In 15th-century Russia, many artists held up the tradition of including precious materials in icon artwork and were identified as “oklad” or “riza”.

These “riza” were ornate artworks that decorated the entire figure, only leaving the icon’s hands and face untouched. An example of this can be seen in a 17th-century icon artwork, Triptych with the Mandylion, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The subject of art history also contains a dedicated category for the study of iconography and analysis of iconography in art that assists scholars with identifying and interpreting artwork according to its “structured imagery”. Below, we will discuss the origin of the word “iconography”, including some of its uses in art as demonstrated in particular examples of artwork and artists across art history.


The Origins of Iconography

The origin of the term “iconography” has its roots in the Greek language and is derived from the word ikon, which translates in English to “image” and “graphy”, which translates to “writing”. Together the words form “image-writing” and relay the message that images tell stories via socially and culturally constructed motifs and symbols. In the modern era, many of us understand the word “icon” in relation to logos, symbols, and small recognizable pictures that are considered to be “universally-recognized” images, better known as, the icon.

Explore Iconography in ArtIconologia, Tempest Edition (1709) by Cesare Ripa; Cesare Ripa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Greek setting, the word ikon referred to the image of Christ drawn or painted on a panel, which then became an object of devotion that was used in the Orthodox Greek church in the 7th century. The origin of the word, therefore, found its roots in association with religion and symbolism, using specific references seen in the image of Christ as a symbol of devotion for Christian followers. This was the icon of the time and remains one of the most popular and identifiable examples of how iconography could be used in religion.

You may also recognize other Christian “iconographies” through the object of the crucifix, which today takes the form of a cross.

It is important to note that iconography refers to specific systems, symbols, or images that artists employ in their work to convey their intended message. These symbols or images would be recognizable by the context and location in which the artist presents the work or for personal reasons, artists form their own iconographies, which become extensions of themselves through artwork.


Unpacking the Definition of Iconography: What Is Iconography?

A famous art historian named Erwin Panofsky was a leader in the development of iconographic studies and identified the discourse of iconology. According to Panofsky, iconology refers to a segment of art history that revolves around the “subject matter and meaning of artwork as opposed to its form”. Panofsky further stated that art possesses three levels of meaning.

Iconography in ArtStatue of Lord Buddha near Canopy Walk in Lolegaon; Subhrajyoti07CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These three levels of meaning refer to the natural meaning, the conventional meaning, and the intrinsic meaning, with each of the levels requiring a more in-depth level of understanding of the culture from which the iconography or image is produced. Below, we will dive into the three different levels of meaning that Panofsky was referring to in connection with iconology and defining iconography in art.


Natural Meanings

Since iconography is so closely attached to specific sets of imagery and symbols in art, it is useful to explore the three levels of meaning, to identify patterns in artwork and help you pinpoint iconographic images. The natural meaning of an artwork or image is derived from the identification of the physical form or recognizable feature. A natural meaning is one made through natural association.

For example, one could picture the image of a cross simply through the natural association with its shape and use in religion.


Conventional Meaning

Conventional meanings build on the subject by adding iconographic and cultural knowledge into the picture. The example of the cross above would immediately be recognized as a symbol used by followers of the Christian religion and is a universal symbol for Christians across the world. The image of the cross is therefore one of the many Christian religious iconographic images.

Iconography ArtChrist Carrying the Cross (c. 1580) by El Greco; El Greco, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


The Intrinsic Meaning

The intrinsic meaning of an image or artwork refers to the deeper symbolic meaning, specific to who made the artwork, the intended audience, and the context it was produced in. The intrinsic meaning delves deeper into the complex symbolism of the iconographic image.

The symbol of the cross, which for centuries, has remained a symbol of the crucifix on which Jesus Christ died, is also a reminder of God’s sacrifice and the death of Christ in repentance for mankind’s sins.

The intrinsic meaning further interrogates the specific historical background of the cross since there is more than one variation of the traditional Christian cross in different cultures. Understanding the process of identification and association with specific contextual guides in mind helps one to understand specific iconographies.


Intended and Implied Iconography

Another aspect to consider when viewing an image or set of symbols or motifs in an artwork is to consider the intended or implied iconography. This is usually determined by the artist, the observer, or the person who commissioned before the motifs were created in the work. This is simply one way of analyzing the context of the motifs in the artwork by looking at the figures involved in its production.

Iconography Art HistorySt Stephen (1476) by Carlo Crivelli; Carlo Crivelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Artworks that describe their intent can be found in iconographic treaties, which provide the necessary information for the artist to follow – a complete brief for execution if you wish to simplify it. Examples of these treaties include 16th century-documents such as the Treaty of picturis et imaginibus sacris, which was penned by Molanus Joannes (or the patron).

Artworks that emerged from the treaty include several Baroque ceilings and details on the contracts between the patron and the artists, which help viewers or iconography analysts interpret the work.

When it comes to interpretive iconography, one can look to the field of iconology, which is a branch of art history and refers to the deduction of information using methods derived from historiography. This means that the analysis of the artwork is undertaken by considering the theological, literary, and philosophical contexts of the artwork in question. An example can be seen in a treaty by Giorgio Vasari who provides details on the iconography and intent behind the decoration of the Palazzo Vecchio.



Examples of Iconography in Art

When looking at iconography, art history is a great place to explore the term in its general sense. What better place to examine symbolism and images than through art? English poet William Blake created his unique set of complex iconography to relay his vision of man and God. Other figures who invented their own iconographies include artists like Joseph Beuys and Pablo Picasso who relied on autobiographical and material patterns in their artwork as their form of iconography, which scholars would identify as associated with them. In an academic sense, iconography is also the study of images and their meaning in art.

Iconography Art ExamplesThe Last Supper (1498) by Leonardo da Vinci; Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another key figure to acknowledge is Fritz Saxl, a historian who shed some light on how images contain their own meanings that respond to the context and time, which influences and highlights the cultural thought that produced them. Below, we will examine two famous iconography artworks by famous artists to help you visualize the way that iconography has been incorporated and adapted in art.


Annunciation (1472) by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

Artist Name Andrea del Verrocchio (1435 – 1488) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
MediumTempera on poplar panel
Dimensions (cm)217 x 98
Where It Is HousedUffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Christian iconography was one of the most popular subjects of exploration for many artists in art history. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Christian iconography is described as the “science” of describing and interpreting traditional or sacred subjects related to the saints of God in art. It is also important to understand that art and the Christian religion were very much intertwined and the arts were often used as a “potent means of instruction” for education and self-improvement. In the early centuries, artists decorated the walls of the catacombs with Christian iconographic imagery through paintings and mosaics. Later on, churches also employed artists to fill the walls of churches, books, altars, windows, and furniture with biblical scenes. These scenes included mythological scenes that were adapted to fit the Christian teachings of the time as well as scenes from the legends of saints.

The Annunciation is a popular scene in Christian iconography that many great painters chose to work with, including 15th-century Italian workshop owner and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio and renowned multidisciplinary artist Leonardo da Vinci. The Annunciation is considered to be Da Vinci’s first complete artwork, which was created around the time he was operating in Verrocchio’s workshop.

The iconographic theme of the Annunciation refers to the biblical story that describes the announcement of Jesus’ conception, relayed by the archangel Gabriel who speaks to Mary and announces that she would conceive and then bear a son via a virgin birth. It is one of the most significant events in the bible that marks the moment of incarnation as well as the moment at which Mary found out she would give birth to the son of God. The scene was further embedded with significance since it marked the announcement of Christ as the Messiah or savior.

Famous Iconography ArtAnnunciation (1472) by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio; Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The scene became known as the Annunciation, which is an event observed by different factions of the Christian religion, but mainly by the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches. The event is considered a holiday that takes place on 25 March and is regarded as the ceremonial birthday of Christ. The event is also commonly found in Catholic Marian art, which was popular between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Early Italian artist Fra Angelico often included the scene in several of his artworks.

Annunciation shows Mary behind a marble table, which was created by Verrocchio in the same period. A Madonna lily is also seen in Gabriel’s hand, which is a symbol of Mary’s virginity and a reference to Florence. Another popular motif is more so the representation of the angel’s hand, which is an iconographic positioning of the hand that can also be seen in Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (c. 1499-1510) created years later.


Primavera (1480) by Sandro Botticelli

Artist Name Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (also known as Sandro Botticelli) (c. 1445 – 1510)
MediumTempera on panel
Dimensions (cm)202 x 314
Where It Is HousedUffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Primavera is a famous painting that was commissioned for the Medici family and is recognized as the allegory of Spring. The painting was created by Sandro Botticelli who drew from Classical themes found in Greco-Roman mythology, to create one of the world’s most famous paintings. The painting was inspired by many Renaissance and Classical literary works, including poetry by ancient Roman poets, Ovid and Lucretius.

The painting was believed to be a gift related to the celebration of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici’s marriage and is often reviewed in contrast to Botticelli’s other painting, The Birth of Venus.

What Is IconographyPrimavera (1480) by Sandro Botticelli; Sandro Botticelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Botticelli’s iconography includes his own adaptation of classical mythology, from Greek to Roman deities. This is seen in the transformation of the main figure, Chloris, into Flora. Chloris was a goddess in Greek mythology who represented Spring and new growth while Flora was the equivalent in Roman mythology. Also featured in the painting is the Roman goddess of beauty and fertility, Venus, who is seen in the center. The three graces, represented by the three women dancing together, are derived from Greek mythology, and thus represented goodwill, charm, and nature, among many other virtues.

Additionally, Botticelli included more than 500 species of plants with 130 identifiable flowers in the composition.

Even the scale of the painting resembled a popular Flemish tapestry style of the 15th century. The elaborate detail in the painting as well as its numerous references to specific classical mythologies and the context in which it was produced make this painting one of the most loaded iconographic paintings in art history. Botticelli turned to literature to inform his visual narrative, thus inventing a 15th-century re-make of classical physical beauty, which transformed into a unique example of the adaptation of iconography in the artwork.



Other Examples of Iconography in Art History

There are certainly a multitude of artists who incorporated their unique and general take on iconography in their art, and this includes artists such as Jan van Eyck, William Blake, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Frida Kahlo, and Albrecht Dürer. Religion played a huge role in influencing what iconographies stood out in different parts of the world with Christianity dominating the Western-European context.

Famous Iconography Art HistoryPastorales Tahitiennes (1892) by Paul Gauguin; Paul Gauguin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Iconography and culture go hand-in-hand with each other and can be used as great launchpads for exploring the ways in which one can translate symbols and concepts into visual artworks. We hope that you have enjoyed learning about how iconography has been applied in art, and how it can be used to relay complex narratives that define our way of living and experiencing the world.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is Iconography in Art?

Iconography in art refers to a specific set of images, motifs, or symbols that an artist uses in their artwork aimed at relaying a message or information about the artwork. These include images that have been built up in a cultural, historical, or social context, and carry some form of value or universal meaning to a group of people or context in which they were made. 


What Is the Importance of Iconography in Art?

Iconography is important to the study of art since it provides a structure from which individuals and art historians can contextualize and analyze the artwork. The symbols or embedded meanings can be identified and studied to understand the shared experiences of a particular group, society, and culture.


What Is Iconography in Art History?

Iconography in art history is a subcategory of art history that deals with the iconographic analysis and interpretation of an artwork. This includes the identification, description, and interpretation of the symbols and connotations within images.


Cite this Article

Jordan, Anthony, “What Is Iconography? – Learn About Iconography in Art History.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. March 14, 2023. URL: https://artfilemagazine.com/what-is-iconography/

Anthony, J. (2023, 14 March). What Is Iconography? – Learn About Iconography in Art History. artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. https://artfilemagazine.com/what-is-iconography/

Anthony, Jordan. “What Is Iconography? – Learn About Iconography in Art History.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source, March 14, 2023. https://artfilemagazine.com/what-is-iconography/.

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