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Historical Development, Cesare Ripa (fl. 1593), Émile MÂle (1862–1954), Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968)

Iconography is the description, classification, and interpretation of the subject matter of a work of art. Derived from the Greek words eikon, meaning image or icon, and graphia, meaning description, writing, or sketch, the word iconography is one of the least understood, most abused, and most flexible terms in the English language. Its primary purpose is to understand and explicate the meaning behind what is represented. Simply described, it is by definition closely related to the equally complex but more abstract term iconology, traditionally understood as a more advanced (and secondary) phase in visual definition. Iconology has been described as "the description, classification, or analysis of meaning or symbolism in the visual arts that takes into account the tradition of pictorial motifs and their historical, cultural, and social meaning" (Baca, p. 89). Whereas these two terms were historically distinct, with the latter usually seen as the ultimate aim of all iconographic research, it is clear that modern usage has lessened their division. They have, to a certain extent, become interchangeable.

As a subject iconography is as old as the first image created by humans, but as a concept in the history of ideas its documented study first dates from the end of the sixteenth century. Although iconography is still largely the province of the art historian, in whose discipline it was first used and with which it became irretrievably linked, it is clear that this is no longer true. Within that discipline its purpose has changed significantly from its prime association with the representational; iconography is now used to support new fields of research at the crossroads of disciplinary studies. Increasingly iconography is being applied to the nonvisual and to studies using textual, aural, or verbal material, which has extended its meaning. Within the field of popular research and computerization, studies have shown that iconography is the most widely used field of inquiry apart from that of artist or maker.

Iconography can work on many levels, from the simply descriptive to the cultural and symbolic, and may be applied to the wider relational framework of content. The easiest of these is undoubtedly the descriptive, where the multivalent nature of images causes the greatest problems (Eliade, p. 15). Even though most art-historical research is underpinned in one form or another by iconography, this study will deal only with the historical development of the concept, the methodology used in its classification, and some modern trends and not with research such as that by Johannes Molanus in De picturis et imaginibus sacris (1570), which uses an iconographical approach but does not deal with the idea itself.

Madonna of Mercy (1445–1462) from the Polyptych of the Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca. Mixed technique on panel. By the early twentieth century, systemization in the field of iconography was underway. Categories such as origin and artist could be cross-referenced with broader subject headings such as Christian art or landscapes. © ALINARI ARCHIVES /CORBIS

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