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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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1. The origins of “interpretative iconography” may
be seen in the descriptions (ekphrasis) of works of art
known in classical literature. But these descriptions,
like those by Philostratus the Elder or Lucian, are
limited simply to description and lack in general any
interpretation. Moreover, it is not certain whether they
are descriptions of actual or fictitious works of art; at
least opinions in this respect vary. Brief medieval tituli,
which formulated in words the content of religious
images were, to be sure, interpretative sometimes, but
they were short and cannot be connected with the
tradition of artistic erudition. We have to look to
modern times to indicate the beginnings of iconogra-
phic interpretation and research. From Vasari's Rag-
in which interpretations of the paintings
decorating the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence are given,
we learn how complicated and how undecipherable
iconographic concepts might have been, even to peo-
ple living in buildings decorated by paintings expres-
sing these concepts. But perhaps the first really to be
considered as interested in iconographic research was
the seventeenth-century archaeologist and art theorist
Giovanni Pietro Bellori. In the introduction to his Lives
of Artists
(1672) Bellori stressed that he paid special
attention to the content of the works of art he was
talking about, and he even credited the painter Nicolas
Poussin with having directed his attention to iconogra-
phy. In his Lives Bellori presented short interpretative
descriptions of pictures, and he sometimes developed
these interpretations further in small iconographic
essays; the influence of classical ekphrasis on him is
a possibility. Sometimes his errors took deep roots in
the subsequent history of art, as when he explained
Poussin's Triumph of Flora (Dresden) by designating
Ovid's Metamorphoses as its source. The true source,
Marino's Adona, was finally found by R. E. Spear in

What is interesting in Bellori's procedure is that he
first identifies the motifs, tries to connect them with
classical or modern literary sources, and then proceeds
to find out the deep meaning, the general symbolic
idea of the work. Therefore he may be considered as
one of the pioneers not only of iconography as a disci-
pline of research, but also of iconology, as formulated
by its recent partisans. That even in the second half
of the sixteenth century some observers were inclined
to look for hidden meaning in each element of the work
of art, we learn from Joannes Molanus (1570), who in
De picturis et imaginibus sacris states reasonably that
“it is not necessary to ask for meaning of everything
that can be observed in a picture: in such cases a lot
of absurd things may result.” But the consciousness of
the importance of iconography increased and at the
end of the seventeenth century André Félibien stressed
that in order to attribute a picture to a painter it is
not enough to know the way he uses his brush; one
needs also to know his esprit, to learn his génie, and
to be able to foresee in which way he is able to form
his conceptions. Thus iconographic analysis was con-
sidered necessary even for the purpose of attribution.

Descriptive interpretations of the works of ancient
art appeared in the big archaeological publications of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as
Jacques Spon's Miscellanea eruditae antiquitatis (1679),
G. P. Bellori's Admiranda romanarum antiquitatum ac
veteris sculpturae vestigia
(1693), P. de Caylus' Recueil


d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques et
(1752-67), and in an interesting endeavor
(although very much criticized by Lessing) of Joseph
Spence to explain classical poets through works of art
and vice versa (Polymetis, 1747). Classical archaeology,
however, has not been especially interested in iconog-
raphy, and the use of the term itself by archaeolo-
gists was limited to portraiture. The first great devel-
opment of iconographic studies was connected with
the romantic movement, although an important pre-
lude for it was hagiographical collections of sources
such as Acta sanctorum published by the Bollandists
(1643-1794, resumed later). Among the pre-romantic
scholars in iconography the eminent German poet
G. E. Lessing is to be noted. His study of the repre-
sentation of death in classical times can be considered
as one of the first essays in interpretative iconography,
which is now called iconology. In Wie die Alten den
Tod gebildet
(1769) Lessing tries to interpret the classi-
cal iconographic type of Amor with the inverted torch
and to find its “intrinsic meaning” by taking into ac-
count the religion, customs, and philosophy of the
classical world. The work of art is interpreted by Less-
ing as “a symptom of something else.” While Lessing's
predecessors (like B. de Montfaucon) “explained the
classical past by monuments” he, for the first time, did
the opposite: “he explained the monuments by Antiq-
uity” (Maurin Białostocka [1969], pp. 92-100).

Pre-romantic and romantic interests in myth and
symbol found their expression in publications and dis-
cussions by German philosophers and scholars like F.
Schlegel, J. Herder, J. J. von Görres, and F. Creuzer.
Creuzer's work, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten
(1810), which shows the influence of mystical
Neo-Platonic ideas on symbols (Gombrich, 1965), was
the most influential in the romantic period in Ger-
many. Under the impact of Chateaubriand's le Génie
du christianisme
(1802), research in medieval iconog-
raphy developed mainly in France. Works by French
scholars, mostly clergymen, which were indeed con-
cerned with Christian medieval art, dominated icon-
ographical study in the nineteenth century. Since most
of these writers were not professional scholars, their
work was often amateurish in character, but it is unde-
niable that books by A. N. Didron, Histoire de Dieu
(Paris, 1843), the first part of a comprehensive, pro-
jected, but not completed iconography of Christian art;
A. Crosnier, Iconographie chrétienne (Caen, 1848); C.
Cahier, Caractéristiques des saints (Paris, 1867); C.
Rohault de Fleury, Archéologie chrétienne: les saints
de la messe et leurs monuments,
12 vols. (Paris,
1893-1900); L. Bréhier, L'art chrétien: son développe-
ment iconographique des origines à nos jours
1918); P. Perdrizet, V. Leroquais, and G. de Jerphanion
have built up a solid body of iconographical knowl-
edge, on which scholars of the twentieth century were
able to erect a modern, comprehensive structure. In
the field of Byzantine iconography, it was Gabriel
Millet's Recherches sur l'iconographie de l'évangile aux
XIVe, XVe, et XVIe siècles
... (Paris, 1916; reprint
1960) that was basic for any further study. For Western,
chiefly French art, a well-written and learned work,
appealing to the general reader as well as to the
scholar, was produced by Émile Mâle, who in his four
volumes of the history of religious art (1898-1932) has
presented a well-composed, synthetic image of icono-
graphical development. A lexicographic summary of
these studies of generations of French scholars is pre-
sented in the Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et
de liturgie,
published from 1907 to 1953, and edited
by F. Cabrol and H. Leclerq. A recent reference work
is that by L. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien (Paris,
1955-59). Russian scholars have done important work
in the field of Byzantine and Orthodox iconography
of religious art. The most prominent are: N. P. Kon-
dakov, Ikonografia Bogomatieri (St. Petersburg, 1911;
2nd ed. 1914-15); D. V. Ainalov, Mosaiki IV i V vekov
(St. Petersburg, 1895); and N. Pokrovski, Otcherki
pamyatnikov christianskogo isskusstva i ikonografii
Petersburg, 1894; 3rd ed. 1910). V. Lasarev and M.
Alpatov, belonging to the mid-twentieth-century gen-
eration of Russian scholars, discuss iconography in
several works on religious art. German scholarship
produced, in the nineteenth century, works by F. Piper,
A. Springer, and H. Detzel. Useful compendia were
produced in the early twentieth century by J. Sauer,
W. Molsdorf, K. Künstle, and J. Braun. Dutch scholars
C. Smits, J. B. Knipping, and J. J. M. Timmers contrib-
uted to iconographic studies in recent times; Knip-
ping's book (1939-40) being the most important work
on the iconography of the Counter-Reformation and
supplementing Mâle's volume of 1932. In the twentieth
century, on C. R. Morey's initiative, iconographic
studies were inaugurated in North America. Focused
on earlier medieval art, these studies developed at
Princeton University.

A new direction, characteristic of iconographic
studies in the twentieth century, has been given to
them by the international school of art historical re-
search inaugurated by the Hamburg scholar Aby
Warburg. At the International Congress for the History
of Art at Rome in 1912 he presented a sensational
astrological interpretation of the frescoes painted by
Francesco Cossa and his collaborators in Palazzo
Schifanoja at Ferrara. Warburg solved the secret of
those representations which had puzzled the ingenuity
of several former students, interpreting them as images
of zodiacal signs and their decans. But he did not limit


his contribution to the presentation of his results. He
wanted to stress the importance of his approach and
of the method of study, which later became connected
with his name. He said:

I hope that through the method used by me for explication
of the frescoes at the Palazzo Schifanoja of Ferrara, I have
proved, that an iconological analysis, which does not allow
itself to be diverted by the rules of frontier police from
considering antiquity, Middle Ages, and modern times as
interconnected periods, nor from analyzing the most liberal
and the most applied works of art as equally important
documents of expression, that this method, endeavoring, as
it does, to throw light upon one dark spot, clears up at
the same time great interconnected developments

(Warburg, 1912; Heckscher, 1967).

Warburg's influence on the history of art was very
great, although he himself did not write much. It was
mainly the posthumous impact of his ideas, promul-
gated, as they were, by Fritz Saxl, which contributed
to the specific direction of studies, concentrated in the
library Warburg founded in Hamburg, and which Saxl
succeeded in transplanting during the Nazi era to
London, where it became the Warburg Institute of the
University of London. While the object of study of the
nineteenth-century iconographers was mainly religious
art in its relation to religious literary sources and lit-
urgy, for Warburg, the study of images was a study
of their relations to religion, to poetry, to myth, to
science, and to social and political life. Art was for
him closely connected with the polyphonic structure
of historical life.

Warburg's ideas had a great importance for the most
influential theory of iconographic interpretation in our
century, that elaborated by Erwin Panofsky. In Ham-
burg, where Warburg, Saxl, and Panofsky were active
in the twenties, Ernst Cassirer built up his philosophy
of symbolic forms, which constituted an additional
background for Panofsky's system, being derived, as
his own methodology was, from the traditions of
Kantian philosophy. Around 1930 Panofsky's ideas
ripened into a system, which found formulation in his
book herkules am Scheidewege (1930) and later in a
theoretical article of 1932. G. J. Hoogewerff was, how-
ever, the first to propose the word “iconology” as a
name for the method of an analysis of content in a
work of art (Warburg spoke of iconological analysis).
In 1931 he proposed distinguishing between iconogra-
phy, as a descriptive science aiming at the identifica-
tion of themes, and “iconology,” aiming at the under-
standing “of symbolic, dogmatic or mystical meaning
which is expressed (or hidden) in figurative forms.” He
stressed that “iconology” deals with works of art with-
out classifying them according to the technique used
or to the achieved perfection, taking into account only
their meaning. Hoogewerff saw the last aim of iconol-
ogy in finding out the cultural and ideological back-
ground expressed by works of art, and the cultural and
social significance which can be attributed to certain
forms and to means of expression in the same time.
Hoogewerff's part in the expansion of iconology was
limited, because he did not endorse his methodical
proposals with examples of historical interpretations.

Erwin Panofsky, with whose name iconology has
been connected ever since, not only developed its
theoretical foundations, but contributed by his practi-
cal work in art history to the main triumph of iconol-
ogy after the Second World War. The most influential
book by Panofsky has been Studies in Iconology (1939),
in which his masterly presentation of the method was
connected with its equally excellent exemplification.