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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. The origins of art are closely connected with
religion and myth. The works of art of early civili-
zations were religious symbols, idols, expressions of
fears and desires. An interpretation of meaning con-
nected with these works of art is however uncertain
due to a lack of reliable records. It is often impossible
to say to what extent an idol or a religious symbol
was considered as a representation of some divine


power and to what extent it was considered as em-
bodying that power. The meaning of concepts like that
of image (eikon) and of the corresponding Latin con-
cept (imago) as well as of figura varied greatly; in
general it evolved from that of substitution to that of
representation (Auerbach, 1959; Bauch, 1967).

In classical antiquity, due to the Greek tendency to
anthropomorphic depiction of mythical divinities, an
art world was created which was divine and human
at the same time. Far from producing only repre-
sentative statues of gods, suitable for cult worship, and
adoration, or for the narration of mythical events,
classical art soon proceeded to create an allegorical
interpretation of myth (Hinks, 1939).

The primitive mind is aware only of a generalized daemonic
force outside itself, to which it is subject and which it must
propitiate; and as it grows, the mythical presentation of
its experience progresses from the undifferentiated dae-
monic power to the personal god, and from the personal
god to the impersonal abstraction which is merely for con-
venience imagined in a human shape...

(Hinks, p. 107).

Just as the myth was provided with an aetiological expla-
nation when it had ceased at length to be self-explanatory,
so the image came to be interpreted allegorically when it
had lost its self-evident character....As soon as philosophic
reflection became self-conscious, the habit of furnishing
straightforward mythical representations with allegorical
explanations made its appearance in iconographical as in
literary criticism

(Hinks, pp. 11f.).

Hinks devoted a penetrating study to this problem.
For the Greeks poetry and myth were more serious,
more philosophical than history, since myth and poetry
concern general truths whereas history concerns par-
ticular ones (Aristotle, Poetics IX. 3). Hence, there
appeared a tendency to make mythical events express
allegorically particular historical events; mythical wars
of Greeks with Amazons, or of Lapiths against Cen-
taurs, were represented instead of the historical strug-
gle of the Athenians against the Persians. Mythical
symbols were always preferred to historical images.
This is a particular case of a general polarization which
can be observed in iconography between the general
and the particular, the mythical and the secular, the
timeless and the historical, between the symbol and
the story. The symbol corresponds to the mythical
frame of mind, the image to the historical:

... even when, during the sixth and fifth centuries before
Christ, the Greek mind succeeded in detaching itself from
the object of its contemplation, and the mythical and logical
forms of comprehension were theoretically distinguished,
this immense intellectual advance did not disintegrate the
plastic vision of the ancient artist, in the same way as the
enlargement of the scientific horizon in the nineteenth
century destroyed the coherence of the modern artistic

(Hinks, p. 62).

In this way forms of iconography originated which
were to have a long life in European art, viz., those
of personification and allegory. The classical gods re-
ceived new, allegorical functions denoting natural
phenomena or abstract concepts. On the other hand,
abstract notions received personified form.

There also appeared in classical art mixed, transi-
tional forms, for example, what Hinks calls “mythistor-
” representations, in which heroes and/or gods
participated beside mortal humans and allegorical
representations (Pánainos' Battle of Marathon). Since
for the Greeks the essential meaning of an event was
its moral sense, the only way to bring this out in art
was to represent it in an allegorical way: “the moral
situation must be personalized: the dramatic conflict
of ethical principles must be represented by the con-
certed action of their symbols” (ibid., p. 66). The
greatness of the Greeks consisted in that they knew
how “to construct a mythical framework within which
the movements of the planets and the passions of the
heart are converted into symbols not merely compara-
ble but actually to some extent interchangeable” (ibid.,
p. 94).

In the later periods of antiquity when irrational
Orphic and Dionysiac religious movements prevailed
over the reasonably organized world of Olympian gods,
and when the Imperial Roman form of the state pre-
vailed over the tradition of small democratic Greek
states, there appeared new forms of iconography,
which were to remain influential in the Christian pe-
riod. Tomb decoration began to flourish, based on the
allegorical interpretation of mythical imagery: Seasons,
Bacchic myths, Venus Anadyomene, Sea-Thiasos
(Cumont, 1942); imperial ceremonies gave form to
elaborate triumphal iconography and they decisively
influenced Christian symbolism. Late classical art
elaborated also the representation of the internal dia-
logue of a man with his soul or conscience in the form
of an external dialogue with an allegorical person, often
acting in an inspiring way: a Muse, a Genius, an Angel,
thus giving shape to a long-lived representation of
inspiration, or of conversation with superhuman pow-
ers, current in art until modern times (Saxl, 1923;
Hinks, 1939).

2. The history of iconographical attitudes in post-
classical times is to a considerable degree a history of
accepting or rejecting the classical tradition. Every-
thing which recalled a heathenish idol-cult was re-
jected, and the meaning of imago was limited mainly
to painted images, which being flat and therefore not
similar materially to what they represented, suggested
only the shape of divine figures. Nevertheless Christian
art adopted various images and functions of images
from the pagan tradition, developing, as it did, an


allegorical imagery of its own, a historical narration,
and icon-portraits of Christ, of the Virgin, and of the
Saints. The cult of the images seems to go back to a
pagan tradition (images of the emperors, portraits of
the deceased) and most probably existed among the
first generations of Christians (Grabar, 1968). That cult,
which rose to greater importance in the fifth and sixth
centuries, and the belief in the part of the holiness of
their saintly prototypes being inherent in these images,
became the object of a long theological quarrel, as a
result of which attitudes towards religious iconography
were differentiated in the West and in the East.

In the Byzantine Empire the problem of religious
images acquired an exceptional importance as the
object of violent theological and political discussions
and of decisions of the Church Councils (Grabar, 1957).
At the Councils of 730, 754, and 815 images were
prohibited, but at those of 787 (Nicaea) and of 843
they were again allowed. Although the partisans of the
images triumphed, a very strict iconographic doctrine
was established, which provided extremely precise
regulations concerning religious imagery in the decor-
ation of East-Christian churches. These regulations
have been followed in the Eastern Church ever since.
The traditional character of Byzantine iconography is
demonstrated by the fact that the iconographic hand-
book by Dionysius of Fourna, Hermeneia tes zograph-
ikes technes,
published by A. N. Didron (1845) was for
a long time considered as a document of an early
period of Byzantine art, and it was only in 1909 that
A. Papadopoulos Kerameus proved it to be a work of
the eighteenth century, obviously reflecting a very old
tradition. In this static world of iconographical think-
ing little change is noticeable, although Eastern Chris-
tian art had its important artistic evolution and often
absorbed Western influences, sometimes even in icono-
graphic respects (e.g., the influence of German prints
on the wall paintings in the Athos monasteries).

3. For medieval Christian thought everything in the
world was a symbol. Things, persons, and events actual
and historical, were considered as symbols of other
things, persons, and events, or as symbols of concepts
and ideas. The doctrine of “universal symbolism” orig-
inated in Saint Augustine (De Trinitate) and first of all
in the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Pseudo-Dionysius
the Areopagite, for whom “visible things are images
of invisible beauty.” Thanks to John Scotus Erigena's
translation, the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysius spread
widely and it was Hugh of St. Victor who presented
the complete theory of universal symbolism: “all nature
expresses God” (Omnis natura Deum loquitur). For
Hugh the universe is “a book written by the hand of
God.” Alain de Lille has given a popular, compact,
poetic formula of universal symbolism:

Omnis mundi creatura
quasi liber et pictura
nobis est et speculum

(“Every creature of the world is for us like a book and
a picture of the world, and it is like a mirror”). Saint
Bonaventure finds that created beauty, being a sign of
the eternal, leads men to God. Theologians discerned
mainly two kinds of symbolism under different names
but signifying two more or less basically similar divi-
sions: (1) existing things endowed with meaning (res
et signa
) and (2) conventional signs (Chydenius, 1960).
In the practical use of symbolism in art one can discern
another diversity: an Aristotelian, rational trend and
a Neo-Platonic, irrational, and mystical one (Gombrich,
1948; 1965). In the first case, the images were not
considered as including any more content than their
verbal equivalents; they constituted a code, a conven-
tional language of signs used to communicate religious
messages. In the second case, experience of symbolical
images was believed to give the observer another,
higher knowledge than that transmitted by words; it
was meant to give a direct ecstatic, and enthusiastic
contact with abstract ideas incorporated, as it were,
in images. Medieval art used generally symbolic images
conceived as a code transmitting its messages to every-
body, also to those who were not able to read. The
other attitude to symbols appeared in the Middle Ages
in the mystical trends. The image which can be grasped
in a sensual way was a means of transgressing the limits
of the corporeal world, and of reaching the spiritual
one. Such a function of images was formulated by
various theologians. Jean Gerson, in the fifteenth cen-
tury, put it in the following words: “And we ought
thus to learn to transcend with our minds from these
visible things to the invisible, from the corporeal to
the spiritual. For this is the purpose of the image”
(Ringbom [1969], p. 165).

The didactic doctrine had been formulated already
in the early period of the Church; according to that
doctrine, images were considered as a form of writing
accessible to those unable to read (Paulinus of Nola,
Gregory the Great; also Thomas Aquinas considered
images to be useful, ad instructionem rudium). This
attitude lasted until the very end of the Middle Ages
(later it was revived in the period of the Counter-
Reformation), and it found expression as late as the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the early graphic
imagery of such typological compendia as Biblia
and Speculum humanae salvationis. The
didactic aims encompassed not only the direct moral
lessons which were transmitted through the imagery
of “prohibition” and “dissuasion,” of the Last Judgment
and of the Virtues and Vices, but also the visual repre-


sentation of sometimes complicated links among the
events of sacred history, considered as prefigurations
and fulfillments which were established between the
figures and events of the Old and the New Dispen-
sation. Thus typological thinking connected images
into symbolic relations. Visual unity was established
in the religious imagery through the large encyclopedic
compendia, e.g., Glossa ordinaria (the large body of
Commentaries to the Bible, until recently held to be
a compilation by Walafrid Strabo), and Gulielmus
Durandus' system of liturgy Rationale divinorum offi-
or Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum maius, an
image of the world seen in the symbolistic mirror.
These books contributed to the realization of the tre-
mendous iconographical programs of the great cathe-
drals of the high Middle Ages, where God, nature, and
man were united into an exceptionally elaborated sys-
tem of symbolic images, mirroring the model of the
world current in the period of Gothic art. Art at that
time followed the symbolistic way of thinking which
prevailed in theology as well as in liturgy, in profane
ceremonials, and in the other fields of life. Art gave
artistic form to the abstract structure of the cosmos
as seen by medieval theologians and brought it close
to the understanding or to the imagination of every
man. This does not at all mean that medieval symbol-
ism was always understandable to everybody and
everywhere. Very specific theological problems and
controversies found their way into iconography, and
when deciphered by modern iconographers they dis-
close often complicated religious and/or political situ-
ations (for example, the imagery of the Ruthwell Cross,
which reflects the conflicting ideologies of Northern
versus Roman Christianity in England, as revealed in
an analysis by Meyer Schapiro, 1944).

Neo-Platonic symbolism was developed especially
under the impact of writings by Pseudo-Dionysius the
Areopagite. His influence promoted to a great extent
medieval ideas about the symbolism of light. The sym-
bolism of light found its highest achievement in the
creation of Gothic architecture, dominated by the
mysticism of light (von Simson, 1956). Abbot Suger,
the auctor intellectualis of Gothic architecture, pre-
sented in his writings an excellent record of that atti-
tude toward symbolism. In his De rebus in adminis-
tratione sua gestis
(XVII) he writes about the doors
with gilt bronze reliefs: “Bright is the noble work; but
being nobly bright, the work / should brighten the
minds, so that they may travel through the true lights,
/ to the true light where Christ is the true door /.
... The dull mind rises to truth through that which
is material...” (Panofsky [1946], pp. 46-49). Con-
templating precious stones transports Suger's mind to
a contemplation of the supernatural:

When—out of my delight in the beauty of the house of
God—the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called
me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has
induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material
to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred
virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as
it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither
exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the
purity of Heaven; and that, by the Grace of God, I can
be transported from this inferior to that higher world in
an anagogical manner”

(ibid., pp. 63-65).

To a similar sphere of mystical symbols the specific
symbolism of numbers also belongs. Numbers in the
Bible and those referring to quantitative relations in
architecture were considered as having a mystical
meaning: “the Divine Wisdom is reflected in the num-
bers impressed on all things” (Saint Augustine, De
libero arbitrio
II, XVI). The belief in the mystical signi-
ficance of numbers, which originated in Pythagorean-
ism and was revived by Neo-Platonism, was transmitted
to the Middle Ages by the Fathers of the Church (Mâle
[1898]; English ed. [1958], p. 10). Complicated ramifi-
cations of this numerical symbolism in the field of
medieval architectural iconography are studied by J.
Sauer (1924) as well as by E. Mâle (ibid., p. 10). The
number eight, for example, connected with the idea
of new life by the Fathers (since it comes after seven,
the terminal number of human life and of the world),
expresses the concept of resurrection and therefore that
of the Baptism; because of that early belief baptisteries
and baptismal fonts are octagonal (Mâle, ibid., p. 14).
One may trace in such use of numerical symbolism
a mystical rather than a didactic attitude.

The general adoption of a symbolic attitude does
not mean that in the Middle Ages no actual events
were represented in art. However, since medieval art
was very much traditional and remained faithful to
exempla or compositional visual patterns, the actual
events, when they were sometimes taken as subjects
of representation, used to be transformed to fit precon-
ceived traditional patterns. The written lives of the
saints have been composed according to literary and
mythical topoi. The same may be observed in art.
When a new subject had to be represented it used to
be molded according to existing patterns. As an exam-
ple we may adduce the story of Saint Adalbert repre-
sented on the bronze doors of the twelfth century at
Gniezno, Poland. The formerly executed European
bronze church doors represented Christological narra-
tive or allegorical figures or ornaments. The fairly
recent hagiographic story had to be given visual shape.
It is not surprising that the representations in most
cases follow the patterns of Christological iconography
(Kalinowski, 1959). Secular subjects, as for example,


the conquest of England by William the Conqueror
and its circumstances, represented on the so-called
Bayeux Tapestry, followed in the general idea the
classical tradition. It seems that perhaps more of a
direct experience of the actual medieval life found its
way into art than is usually admitted, but the relative
share of symbolism and realism, of system and freedom
is still a matter of discussion among medievalists
(Berliner, 1945; 1956).

In the late Middle Ages the general system of icon-
ography persisted, but new subjects, especially the
representations of the most human episodes and rela-
tionships in Christ's life, namely of His infancy and
His emotional connections (with the Virgin and Saint
John) as well as His Passion and the episodes of Our
Lady's life come to the fore. Although symbolical and
didactic thinking maintained its importance, the means
to communicate with the faithful changed: most sub-
jects popular in the late Middle Ages appeal to the
beholder's emotions rather than to his reason. Scholars
have selected a group of so-called devotional pictures
as opposed to dogmatic and to historical repre-
sentations, but the precise delimitation of such a group
is still a matter of discussion, as is also the question
of how much this art was influenced by literature and
especially by pious poetry. With the development of
the graphic arts new cheap pictures spread widely the
typological imagery systematized in the Biblia pau-
and in the Speculum humanae salvationis.
Great collections of religious meditations, compiled in
monasteries, like Meditations on the Life of Christ by
Pseudo-Bonaventure (ed. I. Ragusa and R. B. Green,
1961), spread widely a new emotional approach to
iconography. Also the religious theater had some influ-
ence on the way stories in art were told.

4. In the iconography of the Renaissance art “his-
tory” was shifted to the fore at the expense of symbol-
ism. It does not mean that symbols ceased to exist.
Pictorial allegory and symbolism played a very impor-
tant part in the conception of humanistic art. But what
was placed in the center of the new art theory was
the concept of istoria. The first and the most important
task of the work of art, according to L. B. Alberti (De
1435; Della pittura, 1436), is to present a story.
This story had to be selected from authoritative literary
sources, either sacred or profane; it should represent,
in a possibly convincing and expressive way, an episode
from the Holy Scriptures, from sacred or classical
history, from mythology or legend. This new concept
of istoria, which was to dominate iconographic consid-
erations for more than three hundred years (the mean-
ing of the term istoria or storia changed of course in
that period) was one of the consequences of the Ren-
aissance idea of the priority of literature over the visual
arts. There were several reasons for that priority, one
being a complete lack of known classical theory of art.
In its stead the theories of poetry and rhetoric were
adopted as guiding principles for the visual arts. Hence
the dominating Horatian principle Ut pictura poesis,
which subordinated the visual arts to the rules of liter-
ary theory. This identification of literature and art
lasted until G. E. Lessing in 1766 revolted against it
in his Laokoön (R. W. Lee, 1940). In the humanistic
theory of visual arts the concept of istoria took the
central place. Istoria had to be chosen for its moral
value (Alberti chose as his examples the subjects show-
ing stoic moral firmness, as the “Death of Meleager,”
the “Immolation of Iphigenia,” or the “Calumny” of
Apelles), it had to be represented according to the
principle of decorum and costume, i.e., with regard to
its dignity, and most truthfully to the literary proto-
type. Everything should be suitable in “size, function,
kind, color, and other similar things”: Alberti stressed
the necessity of varied and convincing expressions of
emotions by suitable gestures.

The dependence of post-medieval iconography on
literature increased with time, and in the seventeenth
century the truthfulness of the pictorial formulation
of literary subjects became one of the most valued
qualities of a work of visual arts. “Read the story and
the picture at the same time,” Nicolas Poussin wrote
to M. de Chantelou, one of his customers. In the French
Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture lengthy
discussions were going on concerning the relation of
pictures to literary sources. To be able to represent
well subjects taken from poetry, the artist had to be
a doctus artifex, well-informed in various fields. G. P.
Bellori (1695) stressed, however, the fact that not
everything good in writing comes out well in painting.
Therefore, the painter, to be able to transform the
story, had to acquire “an universal knowledge of things
and he should contemplate precisely nature and reali-
ties.” Some freedom was given to the artist from the
beginning: Alberti was far from limiting the painter
too much by this dependence on literature. He stressed
the specific requirements of the visual arts, as for ex-
ample, the necessity to limit the number of represented
figures in order to keep a balance between “copious-
ness” and “solitude in painting.” This made it, of
course, necessary to reduce crowded scenes to an easily
graspable number of figures in order to avoid “dissolute
confusion” (Spencer [1956], pp. 23-28).

The interest of early Renaissance art theorists in
iconography was not great. They concentrated their
attention chiefly on the discussion of the means needed
to achieve a convincing and beautiful representation
of the istoria, and on the specific problems of repre-
sentation—correct (by adoption of the rules of per-


spective), and beautiful (by adoption of the rules of
proportion). Leonardo da Vinci does not show a spe-
cific interest in iconography, but in some passages of
his incompleted Treatise on Painting he gives literary
programs of pictures; remarkably, however, the pic-
tures are not of stories, but of representations of pow-
erful natural or human happenings, such as storms and
battles. Here the naturalistic interests of the Renais-
sance come to the fore.

An important achievement of the Renaissance, partly
affecting iconography, was the reunion—as noticed and
described by E. Panofsky and F. Saxl (1932) and Panof-
sky (1960)—of the literary and visual traditions of
classical antiquity during the fifteenth century. During
the Middle Ages the literary tradition of classical sub-
ject matter was separated from the visual tradition of
classical artistic motifs, so that there was no awareness
of their belonging together. The classical subjects, for
example those taken from Ovid, used to be represented
in contemporary medieval stylistic forms; classical
artistic motifs, on the other hand, for example the forms
of garment folds, human types, gestures, compositional
patterns, and so on were used to represent Christian
subject matter, as in the western portals of the Reims
cathedral or in the pulpits of Nicola or Giovanni
Pisano. It was only in the High Renaissance, e.g., in
the works of Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, and Cor-
reggio, that forms and iconography, themes and motifs
became reintegrated. In this way the classical vision
of classical subjects became sometimes so perfect that
some works created around 1500 could have been
taken for classical originals (for example, Bacchus by
Michelangelo). The growing understanding of classical
ideas and forms led to another specific Renaissance
phenomenon, called by Panofsky “pseudomorphosis”:

Certain Renaissance figures became invested with a mean-
ing which, for all their classicizing appearance, had not been
present in their classical prototypes, though it had fre-
quently been foreshadowed in classical literature. Owing
to its medieval antecedents, Renaissance art was often able
to translate into images what classical art had deemed

(Panofsky [1939], pp. 70f.).

In the north of Italy, beside the concept of istoria,
appears, a fact which also points to a depend-
ence on poetry; this was understood mainly as referring
to lyrical poetry, and not to epic or heroic. Mythologi-
cal pictures by Titian were described in such a way
(Keller [1969], pp. 24f.). The stress was on the poetical
mood more than on an important human action; a
lyrical tonality was preferred to a heroic one. The
archaeological interests then current in Padua and
Venice, visible, for instance, in the works by Andrea
Mantegna, were moderated by an elegiac poetic mood
in reconstructing the classical world. Pictures by Gior-
gione, who worked for exclusive circles of humanists,
were so hermetic in meaning that several of them, like
the Three Philosophers (Vienna), or the Storm (Venice)
are iconographic riddles up to our own day. The same
is true of the enigmatic and poetic iconography of some
pictures by Titian (Sacred and Profane Love, in the
Borghese Gallery in Rome) by Lorenzo Lotto, or by
the Ferrarese Dosso Dossi.

The most important document of this romantic ar-
chaeological vision, which strongly influenced icono-
graphical invention in Italy and outside of Italy, was
a fantastic romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, attrib-
uted in the most plausible way to a Franciscan monk
Francesco Colonna, and published, with beautiful
woodcuts, by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. Poetic
visions of a dreamy classical landscape, full of ruins,
in which the lovers Poliphilo and Polia wander, influ-
enced the imagination of artists not less than the excel-
lent woodcuts; their impact can be found as far and
as late as in the gardens at Versailles. The illustrations
to Hypnerotomachia also popularized hieroglyphic
signs which make their appearance in iconography as
a specific phenomenon of the Renaissance.

5. Art conceived as a language may be addressed
to large or to small groups. It depends on the scope
of communication. It can be intended as a message
to a possibly large audience, but it can also be limited
in its appeal to a small selected group of observers.
In an extreme case the polarization could be that
between a didactic art appealing to everybody and an
elitarian cryptic message understandable only to the
initiated few. Medieval art belonged by far to the first
category; the art of the Renaissance to the second.
Even in the monumental wall-paintings, decorating the
most celebrated places of Christianity such as the
Sistine Chapel, or the official rooms of the Popes, like
the Stanza della Segnatura; even in the sepulchral
chapels of the most important families like the Sassetti
and the Medici, the iconographic programs and sym-
bolism are extremely complicated. The meaning of the
decoration of the great Gallery of François I at Fon-
tainebleau is so cryptic that it was hypothetically ex-
plained only recently by the best specialists in icon-
ography (D. and E. Panofsky, 1958). Few works of
medieval art have provoked such a number of inter-
pretations as the well-known, and at first glance seem-
ingly easy to understand, pictures like Botticelli's
mythologies (Birth of Venus, Spring; The Uffizi, Flor-
ence), like Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, or like
sculptures such as Michelangelo's Medici tombs. The
same is true of works by Dürer, Holbein, and Bruegel
in the North. A deep symbolism, a complicated
iconography—especially current in the circles influ-


enced by Neo-Platonism—belonged to the perfection
of the work.

This idea had a long life: it recurs in 1604 in Carel
van Mander's Book of the Painter, as well as in Bernini's
utterances on the beauty of the concept which adorns
the work. The more refined the concept, the more
difficult the symbolism, the narrower the circle of those
who can really understand the work.

Art was considered, especially in the exclusive, court
social groups, or among the humanists, as a secret
language, accessible to the initiated. The visual sign
was connected with words into a specific union of
literature and art, which flourished at the time of the
Renaissance, of mannerism, and of the baroque in the
form of impresa, of hieroglyph, and of emblem. The
roots of the impresa—the personal sign and motto—are
to be found in chivalrous devices and signs, popular
in the late Middle Ages; it was brought to Italy from
France and connected with Neo-Platonic speculation
(Klein, 1957). Hieroglyphs became popular thanks to
the discovery in 1419 of the Hieroglyphica by Hora-
pollo Niliacus (of the second or fourth century A.D.),
published in 1505. The humanists believed that this
enigmatic image-script disguised a profound wisdom
of the Egyptians: “they supposed that the great minds
of Greece had been initiated into these Egyptian
'mysteries'—which in their turn, were of course one
more prefiguration of the teachings of Christ” (Seznec
[1953], p. 100). Emblems originated from an erudite,
intellectual play among the humanists, aiming however
at a moral lesson and sometimes considered, in a Neo-
Platonic way, as symbols revealing to those who con-
template them a higher knowledge of divine mysteries.
Emblem included a motto, called lemma, an image,
and an epigram. Only the whole of the emblem can
be understood, each element of it giving only one part
of the meaning. All those cryptic codes of expression,
connecting words and images, originated as secret and
elitarian. The problem of the degree of obscurity was
one of the main points discussed by the theorists of
the emblematics (Clements [1964], pp. 191-95). Eras-
mus of Rotterdam stressed that one of the virtues of
the impresa is that its meaning can be grasped only
with an intellectual effort. Cesare Ripa (Iconologia,
1593) demands that symbolic images be composed “in
the form of enigma.” Sambucus (1564) required “ob-
” and “novitas” from the emblems. Paolo
Giovio represented a reasonable middle: “The device
should not be so obscure as to require the Sybil to
interpret it, nor yet so obvious that any literal-minded
person can understand it.” Later however, the crypto-
grams of hieroglyphics and emblem books began to
be popularized and explained. Collections of emblems
became widely known. New systematization of icon
ography, now of a humanistic one, was inaugurated.

In 1556 Vincenzo Cartari published the first modern
handbook of mythological imagery: le imagini colla
sposizione degli dei degli antichi
(Venice, 1556). In the
same year Pierio Valeriano produced a rich collection
of Hieroglyphica (Basel, 1556). Earlier in 1531, Andrea
Alciati had compiled the first emblem book (Emblema-
tum liber,
Augsburg, 1531). The influence of such
books, which went through many translations and edi-
tions and which were imitated and continued all over
Europe, grew at the close of the sixteenth and in the
seventeenth century. In exclusive groups it happened
much earlier that hieroglyphic, astrological, and em-
blematic imagery influenced the iconography of im-
portant works of art, as, for example, at the court of
Maximilian I (M. Giehlow, 1915); sometimes this con-
cerned works done by the most distinguished artists,
like Dürer's Melencolia I (Klibansky, et al., 1964).
Emblematic principle of composition, uniting as it did
the image with the verbal formulations, found great
popularity in northern Europe, perhaps because, the
importance of the word, so prominent in Protestantism,
was stressed (Luther required “fragments from the
Holy Writ” to be included in the Epitaph-pictures).
Epitaphs and other religious pictures of the Protestant
North connect words and images in the harmonious
indivisible whole (Białostocki, 1968).

In the Netherlands emblems played an important
part in the development of realistic painting in the
seventeenth century, since they furnished a rich reper-
tory of imagery, charged with allegorical meaning (de
Jongh, von Monroy). However, the meaning of those
images, obvious to the viewer who remembered the
original emblematic context, eluded for a long time
later interpreters who were no longer conversant with
the emblems.

After Cartari and his followers furnished artists and
patrons with images of classical gods, there was a need
felt for another handbook, which would enable the
artist to represent, and the patron to understand, the
abstract, moral, philosophical, scientific, and other
ideas symbolized. Only then was art able to express
complex thoughts. This task was fulfilled by Cesare
Ripa of Perugia, who in 1593 published his Iconologia,
a handbook explaining how to represent all the incor-
poreal concepts. In 1603 Iconologia was republished
with illustrations and became one of the most popular
and influential art books. With Ripa in hand art
historians—initially Émile Mâle (1932)—were able to
decipher hundreds of allegorical statements in paint
and stone, guided by this alphabet of personifications.
Ripa's basic entity was a human figure, female more
often than male, whose costumes, attributes, gestures,
and other particulars express specific qualities of the


idea represented. With the publication of Ripa's work—
translated soon into many languages and frequently
republished and revised—the humanistic system of
allegorical iconography was established: classical gods
and personifications, hieroglyphic signs and emblems
connecting words and images: this was the material
used by the artists of mannerism and the baroque when
they did not choose to keep to the “historical” world,
i.e., to borrow their subjects directly from literature.
When they did so, when they painted stories, they used
to select them not only from Ovid and Vergil, but also
from the more recent poems by Ariosto and Tasso, and
also from the works of less known writers, ancient and
modern. Valerius Maximus furnished them with exam-
ples of virtuous behavior. These historical examples
were in general either connected with allegorical gen-
eralizations (in the big decorations of the late baroque
the central fresco was often an allegory and the ac-
companying canvas-pictures presented historical ex-
amples of virtues; Garas, pp. 280-83) or conceived in
an allegorical way. Ovide moralisé was popular already
in the late Middle Ages. Its influence persisted also
in the time of the baroque. Myths and stories under-
went allegorical interpretations along the lines of that
moralizing commentary.

What was considered necessary for an artist around
1600 can be seen from Carel van Mander's Book of
the Painter
(1604). It included a long, theoretical poem,
a history of classical and modern Italian and Nether-
landish artists, a translation and a moral interpretation
of Ovid's Metamorphoses, and finally a description of
personifications. There is no specific section on reli-
gious iconography, since artists were well furnished
with books giving them rules in this respect.

Against the humanistic conception of art the Council
of Trent proclaimed rules, constituting a new system
of religious iconography, which put an end to the live
tradition of medieval art. These rules were published
officially by the Church and they have been com-
mented upon and elaborated in books by Joannes
Molanus (1570), Saint Carlo Borromeo (1577), Gabriele
Paleotti (1581), Federico Borromeo (1624), and several
others. The rules of the Council governed the decora-
tion of churches and other sacred buildings, and the
character of pictures representing sacred subjects. A
break between the religious and the secular iconogra-
phy became obvious in theoretical literature, although
there existed many emblem books of a very distinct
religious character (G. de Montenay, 1571; B. Arias
Montanus, 1571; H. Hugo, 1624). A new strictly for-
mulated system of religious iconography coexisted in
the seventeenth century with humanistic subject mat-
ter, symbolism, and allegory. The classical nude, intro-
duced by the Renaissance into art, was strictly forbid
den now in religious art, but found a free field of
development in secular mythological and allegorical
works. Many artists exercised their imagination in both
fields; in some specific fields such as sepulchral iconog-
raphy, cooperation between religious and humanistic
symbolism was common. In the work of P. P. Rubens
the various aspects of the new iconography found
perhaps their best expression. In his art allegorical
concepts, classical gods and heroes, triumphs of mythi-
cal beings as well as of secular rulers accompany mar-
tyrdoms of Catholic saints and the triumphs of the
Eucharist. What began to be separated in theory could
yet coexist in harmony in the work of a great artist.

6. In northern European art (before Rubens) the
renewal of the arts during the Renaissance took the
form of the new study of nature and the elaboration
of the most convincing means of representing the ma-
terial world in an illusionistic way; traditional medieval
symbolism was transformed in a specific way, produc-
ing what E. Panofsky called in 1953 “disguised sym-
bolism.” The symbolic meaning connected with objects
and qualities persisted, but a new mastery reproduced
these symbolical objects with such a degree of realism
that they did not differ any longer from other objects
not charged with any metaphorical meaning. Some-
times the symbolical meaning of represented objects
results from the traditional iconography in an unmistak-
able way, sometimes the meaning is hinted at by the
inscriptions placed in the picture or on its frame. But
in many cases the modern viewer remains perplexed
without any sufficient clue to decide whether, in the
picture he observes, he has to do with the beginnings
of the representation of reality for its own sake, or
whether the search for specific metaphorical meaning
is justified. It is still always a matter of discussion to
decide at which moment the representation of some
objects or some scene in life without any symbolical
(or “historical”) implications became possible (Gilbert,
1952). Observers of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries to whom the meaning of old symbols was
wholly forgotten took many images of the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries for simple representations of life:
Bruegel, for example, was considered as simply a
painter of joking or working peasants. Recent studies
in iconography have shown that these pictures are
saturated with disguised meaning and that it is ex-
tremely rare before about 1550 to meet simple repre-
sentations of nature in painting. In graphic arts the
direct depiction of life and landscape began earlier,
as in the works of Lombard draughtsmen or in the
incredibly fresh, convincing drawings and prints by the
Master of the Housebook. There are also early excep-
tions in painting like Albrecht Altdorfer's landscape
without any human figures. But in general it was only


during the second half of the sixteenth century that
landscape, genre, and still-life painting began to ac-
quire equal rights with religious and humanistic history
and allegory, predominantly in Venice and in Antwerp.
Even then, however, the representations of people
working in fields (Jacopo or Francesco Bassano) fol-
lowed the old traditions of Calendar-pictures and in
the background of genre scenes, as in Pieter Aertsen's
pictures, a biblical motif may be found, which trans-
forms the whole composition into a storia, however

With the development of realistic painting in the
seventeenth century there appeared specific iconogra-
phic problems. New subjects slowly found convenient
form. They entered the scene patterned after the ven-
erable stories of sacred or of profane iconography.
H. van de Waal described (1952) the process of the for-
mation of national historical iconography in Holland.
Scenes depicting recent happenings from a long strug-
gle for national independence appeared first in forms
assimilated to well-known religious or mythical scenes.
This was not only an expedient facilitating their com-
position, for by this means the new subjects gained the
decorum inherent in the adopted patterns formed to
express traditional stories. Similar procedures may be
seen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when
more and more sections of reality became interesting
enough to be represented in art.

The transfer of decorum from the sacred or allegori-
cal figures to the humans represented is a means used
in what modern iconographers call “allegorical por-
traiture.” Renaissance painters had represented real
people under mythological or even sacred disguise;
they gave actual faces of living people to the figures
represented with all the attributes and characteristics
of their mythical, sacred, or even allegorical qualities.
Later it was only the pattern which remained: still in
the eighteenth century English portraitists patterned
the effigies of contemporary aristocrats after Michel-
angelo's Sybils or after allegories like the Caritas
(Wind, 1937). J. B. Oudry represented the Polish King
in exile, Stanisław Leszczyński, with all the attributes
of the allegory of exile, taken from Ripa, identifying
him in this way with personification of his most promi-
nent quality (Białostocki, 1969).

Dutch realistic painting of the seventeenth century
is a document of an important iconographic conquest.
Landscapes, seascapes, moonlit night scenes, snapshots
of people skating in winter landscapes, views of market
places, church interiors, backyards, fishermen, old
women preparing food, fashionable dishes ready for
lunch, merchants and artisans, elegant gentlemen pay-
ing visits and folk-surgeons performing sensational
street-operations: all this became subject matter for
representation and continued to be considered worthy
of depiction until the end of the nineteenth century.
It was first considered as such in Holland only, then
slowly everyday subject matter was recognized also by
art-theorists in other countries, although it was re-
garded as much less dignified than religious, mytholog-
ical, or allegorical subjects. Only in the nineteenth
century did the vogue of realistic representation of
everyday subjects become widespread. In Dutch pic-
tures of the seventeenth century we are often con-
fronted with nothing else than representations of pic-
turesque reality. Sometimes however these genre
pictures appear to be illustrations of proverbs, expres-
sing moralistic folk-wisdom; sometimes they recall
scenes from the popular threater of the rederijkers or
rhetoricians, especially pictures by Jan Steen (Gud-
laugsson, 1945); they contain allusions to emblems.
Sometimes the elegant scenes from bourgeois life in-
clude quite indecent erotic allusions (de Jongh, 1967;
1969). The ambiguity of these pictures was certainly
a source of specific pleasure for those who knew the
key to their true meaning.

7. In Catholic countries allegorical art, sacred as
well as profane, flourished. The twofold character of
symbolic representations, mentioned above, persisted
in the seventeenth century. Aristotelian rational sym-
bolism, which used images as words, was widespread
in the orthodox Catholic iconography of the Counter-
Reformation, as well as in the humanistic visual lan-
guage codified by Ripa and others. A mystical Neo-
Platonic symbolism transcending reason reappeared
too. Its outspoken document is the treatise by Chris-
toforo Giarda, Bibliothecae alexandrinae icones sym-
of 1626 (Gombrich, 1948). For Giarda symbolic
images give the beholder a direct insight into the
mysteries of religion, which are not accessible to rea-

Thanks to symbolic images, the mind which is banished from
heaven into this dark cave of the body, its actions held in
bondage by the senses, can behold the beauty and form
of the Virtues and Sciences divorced from all matter and
yet adumbrated if not perfectly expressed in colours, and
is thus roused to an even more fervent love and desire for
them.... Who, then, can sufficiently estimate the magni-
tude of the debt we owe to those who expressed the Arts
and Sciences themselves in images, and so brought it about
that we could not only know them, but look at them as
it were with our eyes, that we can meet them and almost
converse with them...

(Gombrich [1948], pp. 188f.).

Great allegorical compositions covering the ceilings of
baroque churches are often realizations of this princi-
ple. For those however, who conceived allegory as a
rational operation, as a language used for didactic aims,
the main problem remained the clarity of the allegori-


cal message. The larger the audience to whom allegory
was addressed, the simpler, more obvious its symbolism
should have been. The banality of allegorical language
provoked criticism in the eighteenth century. Fran-
cesco Algarotti (1762) prefers without any doubt his-
torical representations to the “empty allegories and
complicated mythological allusions” (Garas [1967], p.
280). Especially criticized was the obscurity of these
allegories in which completely original, unknown sym-
bols were used. Roger de Piles praises his favorite
master Rubens, who “introduced only such allegories,
elements of which were already known from ancient
art” and opposes him to Charles Lebrun, who “instead
of taking symbols from some known source as the
ancient fable and medals, has invented almost all of
them and thus the pictures of this kind became riddles,
which the beholder does not want to take the task to
solve.” To keep the balance between platitudinous
redundancy and utter incomprehensibility was the
crucial problem of late baroque allegorism. What is
interesting, however, is that the idea of the picture
as a riddle was not foreign to the seventeenth century.
It appears in France as well as in Sweden, where David
Klöcker Ehrenstrahl (1694) proposed that pictures
present riddles that could not be solved by everyone.
In France, however, the “painted enigma,” fostered
by the Jesuits in their schools, flourished especially well
in the seventeenth century (Montagu, 1968). These
“painted enigmas” lent themselves to various inter-
pretations and gave interpreters an opportunity to
show their ingenuity. These pictures and their inter-
pretations seem to prove that a considerable flexibility
of meaning was intended.

We might rather accept that a work of art was regarded
in the seventeenth century as, in a certain sense, an open
symbol, raw material like the myth or sacred story which
it illustrates, on which the interpreter might exercise the
power of his ingenuity, turning it into an allegory of Chris-
tian doctrine or a panegyric in honour of his patron

(Montagu [1968], p. 334).

Such a situation probably existed only in some specific
circles. It was a limiting case. The other extreme was
to use in an uninteresting, routine way Ripa's symbolic
images, or those of other popular symbolic handbooks.
Such practice continued well into the eighteenth cen-
tury. The general trend, fed by ideas of the Enlighten-
ment was to make allegories more and more obvious.
It is understandable that some theorists, like the Count
de Caylus, looked for new subject matter, presenting
as he did Tableaux tirés de l'Iliade (1755), or that
J. J. Winckelmann tried to revive allegory and to give
it a new force. It was, however, too late. In the eight-
eenth century, together with the whole system of
humanistic tradition, the systems of iconography began
to disintegrate. The great break in the tradition con-
cerned not only style but also iconography. Emblem-
atic roots may be discovered in Goya's symbolism as
well as in the reasonable allegories of the Enlighten-
ment, but generally speaking, there was a search for
new, not known, or not used sources—as in William
Blake's biblical individualistic imagery—or the new
staging of the old ones, as in Jacques Louis David's
classical subjects.

The art of romanticism was a definite break with
the past, much more in the field of ideas and iconogra-
phy than in a stylistic respect, where romanticists
retrospectively looked back either to medieval and
pre-Raphaelite, or to baroque sources. Symbols and
allegories yielded to an all-pervading mood, and the
traditional repertory of religious, allegorical, mytho-
logical, and historical iconography gave way to a new
iconography. Although several encompassing images
of Christian and humanistic art survived, they received
new content and essentially changed their character.
New attitudes of the individual to the world of nature
and history, to society and destiny, to time and death,
and new problems resulting from the striving after
freedom (which was a new, perhaps most important
principle of human behavior in all fields of human
activity), found expression in new thematic fields and
in new particular themes such as “Storm-tossed Boat,”
“Lonely Wanderer in the Mountains,” “A Death of the
Hero” (Eitner, 1955; Hofmann, 1960; Białostocki,

Romanticism has not formed and could not have
formed an iconographic system, for, since they strived
first of all for originality of individual conception, the
romantics interpreted images in a subjective way as
expressions of mood. Romanticism has, on the other
hand, introduced new heroes and martyrs into art,
instead of religious ones: the national, social, and artis-
tic ones. It created a new image of history, seen now
as a set of political and moral examples—as in
baroque—but often put together now according to a
very individualistic principle of choice. A correlative
to pathetic and heroic romanticism was a bourgeois
and intimate romanticism; its expression was, for ex-
ample, the new imagery of the open window, which
shows to the viewer wide perspectives, but shelters him
at the same time from the dangers of the unknown
(Eitner, 1955).

When the world of ideas and images, created at the
moment of the flowering of romanticism, began to be
popularized for the use of the large bourgeois masses,
the content—ideological and iconographical—of ro-
manticism lost its original authenticity and left be-
hind not a new system of original images, but a dispo-


sition to melodramatic experiences and an inflation of
a theatrical gesture (Hofmann, 1960; Białostocki, 1966).

The nineteenth century developed a realistic por-
traiture of man and nature and took over worn out
clichés of the Renaissance and baroque allegories. It
introduced new subject matter, taken partly from tra-
dition, partly from observation of reality, tinted with
vague symbolism, such as “Forge” or the “Funeral of
the Peasant,” but it did not create a new system of
iconography, in spite of short-lived revivals of symbol-
istic attitudes in such movements—incidentally not
limited to, and not initiated in, the visual arts—as

New, ephemeral artistic movements, which consti-
tuted the history of European art in the last hundred
years, show an interesting bracketing of style and icon-
ography, in spite of a preponderant lack of iconogra-
phic interest. Their representatives chose subjects suit-
able to specific artistic aims and means which they
developed and were interested in. Impressionists
painted seaside scenes, landscapes, and genre pictures
showing the life of artistic and intellectual milieus.
Cubists introduced a specific repertory of still-life
motifs, symbols of the artist's atelier and of the life
of the bohème: bottles, musical instruments, books,
fruits, flowers, newspapers. How much these motifs
were connected with specific cubist style appears when
one looks at works of artists foreign to the original
cubist group, but imitating its style, as for instance
several Czech artists like Emil Filla. They adopted
cubist iconography together with cubist style. Abstract
movements in general lacked iconography, although
they were not foreign to symbolic tendencies, espe-
cially in sculpture (Brancusi, Moore). Only in the dec-
ades of 1950-70 can a revival of more articulated and
programmatic symbolism be observed. One may sup-
pose that this revival is at least in part brought about
by the development of research in iconography and
symbolism, which took place in the second and third
quarters of our century.