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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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ICONOGRAPHY
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170 occurrences of ideology
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ICONOGRAPHY

The word iconography comes from the Greek word
εἰκονογραφία,; in modern usage iconography is a de-
scription and/or interpretation of the content of works
of art and therefore its history belongs to the history
of human ideas. We propose, however, to distinguish
between what one could call “the intended (or implied)
iconography” and “interpretative iconography.” By the
first we understand the attitude of the artist, the patron,
or the contemporary observer toward the function and
the meaning of visual symbols and images. Sometimes
it was formulated in writing in documents like con-
tracts (for example, “Contract for Painting an Altar-
piece of the Coronation of the Virgin for Dominus Jean
de Montagnac by Enguerrand Quarton,” 1453); in
programs (known for several late-baroque ceiling
paintings); in iconographical treatises (for example,
Joannes Molanus, De picturis et imaginibus sacris,
1570); in utterances of the artists (for example, Giorgio
Vasari's Ragionamenti, written 1567, published 1588),
or of the patrons (for example, Abbot Suger's De con-
secratione ecclesiae S. Dionysii
). Sometimes we can
reconstruct it only by historical methods, by adducing
philosophical, theological, or literary ideas contem-
porary with or current at the time. By “interpretative
iconography” may be understood precisely that branch
of historical study of art which aims at the identifica-
tion and description of representations, and at the
interpretation of the content of the works of art (this
last function now preferably called “iconology”).
Whereas “interpretative iconography” is a historical
discipline of the study of art, the “intended or implied
iconography” is an element of the general outlook and
aesthetic attitude of the period. The degree of conscious-
ness in approaching the problem of content in art
varied at different times and places.

In order to outline the changing relations of images
and ideas, we shall in the present article discuss first
the development of “intended iconography,” i.e., the
attitude toward images and visual symbols as mani-
fested in art and art literature in western Europe; the
formation of what may be called “systems of iconogra-
phy”: the medieval religious system, the Renaissance,
and baroque humanistic system; the dissolution of
systems around 1800, and finally, the new develop-
ments in the last hundred and fifty years. In the second
part of the article we shall be discussing the develop-
ment of “interpretative iconography,” i.e., of art his-
torical studies concerning problems of iconography,
with a special stress on recent developments in that
field.

I

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


525

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
vision

(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-
ical
” 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


526

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
pauperum
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-


527

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-
ciorum,
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 previous hit ideologies next hit 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,


528

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-
perum,
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
pictura,
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-


529

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
inexpressible

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

In the north of Italy, beside the concept of istoria,
poesia
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-


530

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-
scuritas
” 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


531

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


532

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
unorthodox.

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-
bolicae
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-
son.

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-


533

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,
1966).

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-


534

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
“symbolism.”

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.

II

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-
ionamenti,
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
1965.

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


535

d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques et
romaines
(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
Völker
(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
(Paris,
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
(St.
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


536

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.

2. Panofsky considers the interpretation of a work
of art as falling on three levels. On the first level, the
object of interpretation is the primary or natural sub-
ject matter. The function of interpretation is called
“pre-iconographical description.” In order to be able
to arrive at a correct interpretation on that level the
interpreter must have a practical experience (“famili-
arity with objects and events”) common to everybody,
at least in one cultural sphere. However, he has to
control his observations by a “corrective knowledge
of the history of style” (“insight into the manner in
which, under varying historical conditions, objects and
events were expressed by forms”). On the second level,
the function of interpretation is called “iconographical
analysis”; its object is the “secondary or conventional
subject matter,” constituting the world of images, his-
tories, and allegories. The interpreter's equipment in
this case is obviously the knowledge of literary sources,
giving him a “familiarity with specific themes and
concepts.” The interpreter has to control his observa-
tions by “the insight into the manner in which, under
varying historical conditions, specific themes or con-
cepts were expressed by objects and events.” On the
third level, the function of interpreting is called “icon-
ographical analysis in a deeper sense” (1939), or “icon-
ological analysis” (1955). Its object is the “intrinsic
meaning or content” of a work of art. The interpreter's
equipment on that level should be a “familiarity with
the essential tendencies of the human mind,” and he
has to control his interpretation by the “insight into
the manner in which, under varying historical condi-
tions, essential tendencies of the human mind were
expressed by specific themes and concepts.” Thus,
taking all the time into account what Panofsky calls
the history of tradition, the interpreter has to aim at
understanding the work of art, its “primary” as well
as “secondary subject matter,” as symptoms of some
fundamental tendency of the human mind, typical of


537

a place, a time, a civilization, and of an individual
responsible for the creation of the work. “Iconology”—
for Panofsky—“is a method of interpretation which
arises from synthesis rather than analysis.” Trying to
find the intrinsic meaning of a work of art,

The art historian will have to check what he thinks is the
intrinsic meaning of the work, or group of works... against
what he thinks is the intrinsic meaning of as many other
documents of civilization historically related to that work
or group of works, as he can master.... It is in the search
for intrinsic meaning or content that the various humanistic
disciplines meet on a common plane instead of serving as
handmaidens to each other

(Panofsky [1955], p. 39).

The concept of intrinsic meaning of a work of art
was elaborated by Panofsky much earlier (1925), when
he interpreted in his own way the concept of Kunst-
wollen,
introduced by A. Riegl to research in art.
Panofsky understood this “artistic volition” as an im-
manent, ultimate meaning of a work of art, which is
manifested in the way basic artistic problems are solved
in that work. He used the same concept further to bring
art closer to the other fields of human activity. Since
the “immanent ultimate sense” of the work of art is
nothing else than uniformity in the way of solving basic
artistic problems, it is possible to compare that imma-
nent sense with immanent senses of the other human
works in various fields. Panofsky did it, for instance,
when in one of his later works he compared the struc-
tural principles of Gothic architecture with those of
scholastic thinking (1951).

The system elaborated by Panofsky and exemplified
by his own work in art history was the first consistent
system of an integral interpretation of a work of visual
arts, based on the analysis of content. In principle
Panofsky's system takes into account all the elements
of the work of art, since it takes as the point of depar-
ture the sensual, exterior shape of the work. It is,
however, clear, that its main scope is not the inter-
pretation of form as a bearer of meaning, but the
understanding and interpretation of conventional alle-
gories, literary themes, and symbols as symptoms of
the history of the human mind. It was that method
in the history of art which programmatically fostered
a collaboration with all the other disciplines of histori-
cal studies. It was therefore one of the most influential
methods, not only among art historians, but also among
representatives of the other branches of humanistic
studies. Although there were art historians who ex-
pressed a critical attitude toward “iconology,” as the
new method was soon baptized, its influence was over-
whelming.

3. It is not only, but mainly, due to Panofsky, that
one can venture to call “iconographical” that period
of art history as a historical discipline, which followed
the Second World War, and to oppose it to the “stylis-
tic” one which preceded it. It does not mean, of course,
that no iconographic research took place in the
twenties or thirties: the works of Mâle, Knipping, van
Marle, Wilpert, Saxl, and of Panofsky himself would
contradict such a statement. Neither is it true that
purely formal research aiming at stylistic classification
and analysis discontinued after World War II. It is
evident that in the last decades (from 1940 on) icono-
graphic interests came to the fore and became domi-
nant in many countries. Iconographical studies grew
so much in number and importance, that they made
it possible to undertake and to publish new reference
works of iconographic character, like dictionaries
written by one scholar (Guy de Tervarent, Aurenham-
mer) as well as larger works based on a collaboration
of several scholars (Encyclopedias of German art, of
Antiquity and Christian civilization, of Byzantine art).

Interest in meaning and iconography has appeared
also among historians of political, social, and religious
institutions. The symbolism of signs, ceremonies, cos-
tumes, and arms was studied by such scholars as A.
Alföldi, “Insignien und Tracht der römischen Kaiser,”
Mitteilungen des deutschen Archäologischen Instituts,
Römische Abteilung
(1935), 1ff.; “Die Geburt der
kaiserlichen Bildsymbolik,” museum Helveticum, 9
(1952), 204ff.; also by A. Grabar, Martyrium (Paris,
1943-46); by E. H. Kantorowicz, laudes Regiae...
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1946); The King's Two
Bodies
(Princeton, 1957); by H. P. L' Orange, Studies
in the Iconography of Cosmic Kingship in the Ancient
World
(Oslo, 1953); Art Forms and Civic Life in the
Late Roman Empire
(Princeton, 1965); and by P. E.
Schramm, herrschaftszeichen und Staatssymbolik
(Stuttgart, 1954-56). In their studies iconography far
transcends the borders of art, and it helps to build up
a history of ideas by following their various visual
expressions.

Pioneering studies by K. Giehlow, F. Saxl, and E.
Panofsky enlarged iconographical interests above all
to encompass the large field of secular art, whereas
they had been mainly limited to religious iconography
in the work of preceding generations of scholars. The
whole, complicated, and hardly known large body of
meanings, disguised by the cryptic language of hiero-
glyphs, emblems, and iconologies, became one of the
main topics of study.

This established a collaboration between historians
of art and literature. Mario Praz's admirable study of
emblems and his bibliography of emblem books
(1939-47) belongs now to the foundations of studies
in that field. Publications by W. S. Heckscher and
A. K. Wirth, by R. S. Clements, E. F. von Monroy, and


538

H. M. von Erffa, E. de Jongh, and H. Miedema, and
several other scholars, have elucidated the structure
and meaning of emblems and have shown their tre-
mendous influence on art, even in its most monumental
and dignified forms. An uninterrupted flow of reprints
of emblem books, which brought within the reach of
modern students inaccessible volumes of sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century emblem writers, were crowned by
the monumental undertaking of Arthur Henkel and
Albrecht Schöne, who compiled an excellent volume
including almost all the texts and images needed for
the study of emblems—Emblemata, Handbuch zur
Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts

(Stuttgart, 1967). Research was under way on hiero-
glyphs (Erik Iversen), and on the imprese (the late
Robert Klein), as well as on iconologies and allegories.
These studies have disclosed meanings of the art of
the Renaissance, of mannerism, and of the baroque not
understood by nineteenth-century scholars.

E. Panofsky deciphered extremely farfetched and
individualistic programs of decoration of such famous
ensembles as the Camera di San Paolo by Correggio
in Parma, the Gallery of François I at Fontainebleau.
Edgar Wind, André Chastel, and other scholars inter-
preted Raphael's decorations in the Pope's apartments.
Michelangelo's art furnished material to detailed com-
prehensive studies by Panofsky, Ch. de Tolnay, H. von
Einem, and Pope-Hennessy, in which the share of
Neo-Platonic thinking in the ideological background
of the celebrated works of Michelangelo was discussed.
Innumerable studies have been devoted to Titian's
mythological paintings. J. R. Martin presented expla-
nations of the Carracci frescoes in the Camerino Far-
nese and in the great gallery of the Palazzo Farnese.
Bruegel, considered in the nineteenth century as a drôle
painter of peasant life, has been shown by de Tolnay,
Stridbeck, and others to be an allegorist expressing a
skeptical, humanistic outlook. J. S. Held and W.
Stechow contributed several articles to the under-
standing of mythological and allegorical contents in
Flemish and Dutch art of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. Rembrandt's iconography was put into new
light by the two above-mentioned scholars as well as
by H. M. Rotermund, H. van de Waal, J. G. van Gelder,
H. von Einem and Ch. Tümpel. The intricate symbol-
ism and subject matter of historical and mythological
pictures by Nicolas Poussin were elucidated by such
masters of iconographic research as E. H. Gombrich,
W. Friedländer, E. Panofsky, and above all by A. Blunt,
who in his monograph on Poussin presented a new,
deep, synthetic view of the ideas expressed by that
artist's works. Goya's individualistic, secret symbolism
was also studied with the help of emblems and the
allegorical tradition. Bernini's works received iconolo
gical treatment by R. Wittkower and H. Kauffmann.
All of this research does not mean that there was a
lack of interest in religious iconography. M. Schapiro,
A. Katzenellenbogen, H. Bober, F. Wormald, and V.
Elbern, among others, have contributed considerably
to deepen our understanding of the not completely
explained motifs and prominent works of medieval art.
Panofsky has also shed a new light on several problems
of sepulchral iconography; studies by such scholars as
R. Berliner, G. von der Osten, L. Kalinowski, S.
Ringbom, and T. Dobrzeniecki contributed to late
medieval iconography in a new way; Berliner stressed
the autonomous invention of visual artists or their
patrons, while according to the traditional view, popu-
larized by Mâle, late medieval art should have followed
strictly literary sources.

The religious content of modern art, especially its
allegorical form in the late baroque period, has been
examined, and thanks to studies by such scholars as
W. Mrazek and H. Bauer, has become better known,
and understandable. A great change was introduced
by “iconology” into architectural history. Buildings
which were formerly interpreted from aesthetic and
functional points of view only, have been shown to
present allegorical, symbolical, or even emblematic
ideas. Publications by leading art historians (R. Witt-
kower, B. Smith, G. Bandmann, O. von Simson, and
G. C. Argan) have presented medieval and modern
architecture as a bearer of meaning and have essen-
tially changed the character of architectural history.

The iconography of classicism and romanticism
received a thorough treatment in books by W. Hof-
mann and R. Rosenblum, as well as in several studies
devoted to individual themes and pictures. G. Hersey
has, for example, shown how much Delacroix's decora-
tion of the library in the Palais Bourbon owed to
Giambattista Vico's ideas about history. More recently,
studies on “Symbolism” have been undertaken. Vincent
van Gogh's symbolic language and iconography were
the object of studies by J. Seznec, C. Nordenfalk, and
other scholars. On Cézanne's iconography interesting
remarks have been published by M. Schapiro.

Along with the development of iconographic studies
the establishment of centers of documentation has
advanced. The “French” stage in the development of
iconography has not left any marked trace in this
respect. It was in America, thanks to C. R. Morey, that
the famous Index of Christian Art at the Department
of Art and Archaeology of Princeton University was
founded, at first limited to the early Middle Ages, then
enlarged so as to include art up to the end of the
medieval period. Copies of the Princeton Index are
to be found also at the Istituto Pontificio d'Archeolo-
gia in Rome, and in the Dumbarton Oaks Library and


539

Collection in Washington, D.C. But that Index ends
“where art begins”—as Panofsky used to say jokingly.
The need for systematic iconographic files for modern
art was strongly felt. In 1956, A. Pigler published a
very useful book, Barockthemen, in which he listed
thousands of works of art of the baroque period, ac-
cording to their subjects. It was, however, far from
being a systematic work. The first essay in establishing
a systematic iconographic index for art of any time
was done by The Netherlands Institute for Art History
at the Hague, then directed by H. Gerson, which took
the initiative around 1950 of publishing a postcard-size
photographic index of its rich collection of photographs
of Netherlandish art, ordered according to an icono-
graphic principle. Once such an idea was formulated,
the need for a comprehensive, consistent, and clear
iconographic classification was urgent. H. van de Waal
of Leiden University devised such a system of classifi-
cation, based on decimal divisions, consistent and easy
to read. He based his system on experiences of ethnol-
ogy and on such elaborated systems of classification
as that devised by Stith Thompson in his Motif-Index
of Folk Literature,
Vols. I-VI (Bloomington, Ind.,
1932-36; rev. ed., 1955-58). Van de Waal has elabor-
ated a system in which the first five main sections
classify five fundamental groups of portrayable things,
namely: (1) The Supernatural, (2) Nature, (3) Man, (4)
Society, (5) Abstracts. The last four classify specific
subjects, such as: (6) History, (7) The Bible, (8) Myths,
Legends, and Tales (with the exception of classical
antiquity), (9) Myths and Legends of Classical Antiq-
uity. Van de Waal combines the classification in the
first and in the second group in order to classify general
as well as specific subjects. Christ, in his system, is
described with the sign “11 D” (“1” standing for Su-
pernatural, “11” for Christianity, “D” for Christ); the
adult Christ = 11 D 3; since “shepherd” on the other
hand bears the signature 47 I 22.1, the adult Christ
as a shepherd can be described in this system by the
following formula: 11 D 3 = 47 I 22.1. Van de Waal
has also provided means to describe more complex
images, which he expresses by adding elements between
brackets. The Annunciation with God the Father and
a winged Angel is expressed by the following formula:
73 A 5 (+1 +41), “1” standing for God the Father
and “41” for a winged Angel (van de Waal, 1952). This
system elaborated for many years by its inventor, and
prepared for publication in many volumes, has proved
most useful in the practical arrangement of the Icono-
graphical Index of the Netherlandish Art and, as the
only one until now in existence, it became used more
and more, in spite of some ambiguities and difficulties.
As an endeavor to classify “all portrayable” things,
persons, events, and ideas, and to create a consistent
method to describe every possible image, van de Waal's
system may be considered as one of the important
achievements of the “iconographical stage” in the
development of art history. Iconographic files exist of
course in many institutions, as for example in the Ikon-
ologisch Instituut of Utrecht University, one of the
main centers of study in emblematics, and of course
in the most venerable institution of iconographic re-
search, the Warburg Institute of the London University
and in other places.

4. What was the result of this “iconographic” turn
in the development of the history of art? One thing
is certain: that this discipline by necessity has come
closer to other humanistic disciplines. Since the
“intrinsic” meaning—in Panofsky's terminology—of a
work of art cannot be described in terms used by the
history of art, but only in terms borrowed from the
history of philosophy, of religion, of social structures,
of science, and so on, the “iconological method” took
for granted and provoked such a collaboration. Art
history was perhaps the first, or one of the first to show
new interest in investigation of meaning. It was fol-
lowed by similar developments in ethnology and in
linguistics.

We have mentioned above a parallel development
in Byzantine and classical studies. Panofsky's influence
has been considerable in the other fields of humanistic
research. Since “iconology” aimed at discovering ideas
expressed by a work of art, it awoke in art historians
an interest in the history of ideas. This general shift
of emphasis and of the direction of studies from mainly
formal ones to studies aiming at ideas underlying art,
was perhaps responsible, among others, for the fact that
several contributions to the Journal of the History of
Ideas
have been written by historians of art.

It is not difficult to see that such a development
should have provoked criticism on the side of those
who care about the purity and autonomy of methods.
Iconology was criticized as far as its internal coherence,
and also as far as its claim to be the integral method
of the study of art are concerned (Białostocki, 1962).
Studies by R. Klein, E. Forssman, G. Previtali, G.
Kubler, B. Teyssèdre, C. Ginzburg, and G. Hermeren
expressed critical opinions in one or the other respect.
Iconology linked art with the rest of history, but it
disrupted the links between the work of art and other
things (Kubler, 1962). Concentrating on meaning,
iconology neglected art as form, as individual expres-
sion. Iconology implied a rational relationship between
intellectual content and artistic form. On the one hand,
one spoke of “iconological diminutions” (Kubler,
1962)—limitations of research to meaning only. But
on the other hand, the overstatements of iconology
were criticized: its representatives sometimes seemed


540

to assume everything symbolized something. And some
iconologists seemed to consider important in art not
that which makes art a different field of human activity,
but that which connects art with other fields—with
the history of ideas.

There were of course critics who had the opposite
opinion. Since the end of the eighteenth century, a
direct experience of art was more and more valued,
and its symbolical function considered as a burden.
J. G. von Herder said: ein Kunstwerk ist der Kunst
wegen da; aber bei einem Symbole ist die Kunst
dienend
(“A work of art is there because of art; but
with a symbol art is a service”). Similar opinions were
expressed by nineteenth-century art writers, and in this
century they have been voiced by Benedetto Croce and
by other Italian opponents of contenutismo, by which
they meant interest in content. For such critics to put
stress on iconography was to miss the essential in art
and to focus attention on a subordinate function of art.

Also among scholars who considered the function
of representation and of communication as a legitimate
and important function of art, criticism was expressed,
not against the principle of an iconographical or icon-
ological investigation, but against overstatements in
their application. The introduction of the idea of “dis-
guised symbolism” has created a danger, of course, of
opening the way to fanciful interpretations. The alle-
gorical and symbolical function of mythological imag-
ery in classical art is also difficult to interpret precisely.
Since no literary sources give a key to an interpretation
of the iconography of the sarcophagi, very divergent
theories have been expressed concerning their meaning.
Some archaeologists, like F. Cumont (1942), believe
that mythological and allegorical imagery (Anadyo-
mene, Sea-Thiasos, Personifications of the Seasons) is
to be read symbolically. The Sea-Thiasos, for instance,
is to be interpreted as a symbol of the journey of the
souls of the deceased to the islands of the blessed.
Others, like A. D. Nock (1946), do not find enough
evidence to accept other than a decorative function
in such imagery.

The intrusion of some representatives of psychology,
e.g., C. G. Jung, into iconographic studies, giving them
an unhistorical turn in their search for “archetypal
images,” has complicated the situation, although art
historians in general understandably have not accepted
that kind of approach to symbolism (Frankfort, 1958;
Gombrich, 1965).

The fact that iconographic interpretations sometimes
lack satisfactory proofs does not detract from the im-
portance of such investigations, so long as they are
conducted according to the requirements of historical
methods, and take into account the corrective princi-
ples established by Panofsky. A correct acquaintance
with the way of thinking of the artist, the patron, or the
viewer based on a satisfactory knowledge of documen-
tary, visual, and literary sources, an awareness of the
choice situations produced by historical developments,
may enable art historians to discover the secondary
meaning of a work of art as well as its intrinsic mean-
ing. It is, of course, possible that the art historian will
meet some works for which it will not be possible to re-
construct in a satisfactory way the world of ideas that
would account for the meaning of those works. In such
cases a reliable interpretation is simply not possible.

R. Berliner (1945; 1966) criticized the widespread
opinion according to which content of the works of
visual arts in the Middle Ages had to be checked
against the literary sources, considered as the only
medium in which ideological innovations were per-
mitted. Berliner pleaded for assuming a considerable
“freedom” in the medieval artist and he considered
iconographic innovation possible, even when no writ-
ten evidence could be found. Meyer Schapiro (1947)
presented proofs that sometimes purely aesthetic rea-
sons decided the character of the work of art even as
early as the Romanesque period.

We can only touch on some specific discussions going
on in the field of iconographic research. But iconogra-
phic research is far from being a closed system and
the relative share of iconographic and stylistic criticism
in the work of art historians is always a matter of
discussion. It is certain that the “iconographic” period
in the study of art has enlarged in a considerable way
the understanding of the art of the past and that it
has connected art history, in a way unknown before,
with the other historical disciplines, and above all others
with the history of ideas.

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JAN BIAŁOSTOCKI

[See also Allegory; Baroque; Classicism; Criticism; Enlight-
enment; Motif; Myth; Naturalism in Art; Neo-Platonism;
Renaissance Humanism;
Romanticism; Symbolism; Tem-
perance; Ut pictura poesis.]

542