Italy at the end of the sixteenth century provided the first scholarly studies in iconographical classification, all of which appeared within twenty-five years of each other. These include Andrea Alciati's Emblematum liber (Augsburg, 1531), Pierio Valeriano's Hieroglyphica (Basel, 1556), and Vincenzo Cartari's Le imagini, con la spositione de i dei de gli antichi (Venice, 1556). All of these were superseded by what is now seen as the first study to deal with the theory of iconography, Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (c. 1555–1622), a slightly ironic publication in that it was initially published without any image whatsoever (not until the third edition in 1603 were woodcuts included). Ripa's study formed the basis for much subsequent research and is one of the most comprehensive iconographic manuals for the student of personifications. It was thanks to the success of his study (and the inclusion of images in subsequent editions) that Ripa's original focus on his subject matter, as documented by the textual, was lost.
Images came to assume a greater role with the consequent and irretrievable association of what was then called iconology and art history. Ripa's initial conceptualizations of what could be represented were removed from its meaning, and iconology came to assume an association with what was there rather than what could be there. Iconology came to deal in visual fact, not theory, and began to take on humanistic associations. From the mid-seventeenth century onward, iconology was synonymous with the study of visual matter, with a slight emphasis initially on religious themes (which was later extended to the secular). It was also around this time that iconography, the now more widely used of these two terms, came into use with its specific reference to visual (usually portraits) rather than textual material. Over time it was a word that came to be applied to specific generic types of subject matter—not only portraits but medical and scientific material as well. Although the term ichnography (the art or process of drawings), yet a third variant, had been in use since the late fifteenth century or early sixteenth century, it became popular at the beginning of the seventeenth century for its particular reference to architectural subjects. The primary position occupied by Ripa throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was never seriously threatened despite the appearance of a series of other icono-graphical dictionaries, encyclopedias, and studies, such as those by Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1672), Jacob Spon (1679), Giuseppe Kurtzböck (1735), Honoré Lacombe de Prézel (1756), Jean-Charles Delafosse (1768), Johann J. Winckelmann (1717–1768), Friedrich Rehberg (1794), August Stöber (1807), Adolphe-Napoléon Didron (1806–1867), Josef Strzygowski (1885), and Henry Spencer Ashbee (1895).
The nineteenth century saw the organized beginnings of large-scale iconographical studies. This was what could be called the age of theory in art history, in which iconography was to assume a pivotal and dominant role and extend its tenets into other fields. One of the most important interdisciplinary approaches was that developed out of textual studies by a group of French scholars, including Fernand Cabrol (1855–1937), Charles Cahier (1807–1882), François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848), Adolphe-Napoléon Didron (1806–1867), Émile Mâle (1862–1954), Albert Marignan (fl. nineteenth century), Xavier Barbier de Montault (1830–1901), and Walter Pater (1839–1894). These studies were formative in the establishment and development of iconography as a modern interdisciplinary tool. If the works by these scholars were largely iconographical (with occasional forays into iconology), they nevertheless defined the parameters of future research.
Prior to this time, the focus of iconographical studies had been largely on style. However, a new emphasis on content, based on the concept of beauty personified in the Christian ideas embedded in medieval art, emerged with the publication of Chateaubriand's Génie du Christianisme in 1802. In it, he balanced neoclassicism and rationalism against the concept of genius and spirit as represented by the world of medieval art. If Chateaubriand justified the study of art in all its forms from a slightly conceptual stance, it was Didron who actually enforced a more comprehensive iconographical approach. They were the first art historical iconographers of medieval art, which at that stage was still in its infancy and which culminated in Mâle's L'art religieux du XIIIe siècle en France: Étude sur l'iconographie du Moyen Age (trans., Religious Art in France, the Thirteenth Century: A Study of Medieval Iconography and Its Sources), first published in 1898. Mâle's nationalistic stance may be seen as a subjective aside (a factor of the post–World War I period) and not one that was to influence future icono-graphical studies. On the other hand, he is the first art historian to be either criticized or credited with the fact that iconography became irrevocably text-driven. The association between text and image is a characteristic that has both hindered and promoted research since then and is an element whose relationship is still not clearly defined.
The twentieth century brought about a major reevaluation of the meaning of such terms and an even wider application of the practice. Resulting largely from the establishment of art history as a formal discipline in universities and the improvement of photographic reproductions, along with the greater availability of images and an increase in publications, iconography and iconology came into common usage and were applied to large-scale collections. The establishment for the first time of art historical photographic archives, such as the Witt Library (Courtauld Institute of Art), the Index of Christian Art (Princeton University), and the Frick Art Reference Library, meant that relatively large-scale visual resources were available for the study of particular themes and subjects.
The organization of the many large photo archives created at the start of the century used subject matter or iconography as a point of access. One of the best-known archives, the Index of Christian Art, founded in 1917 at Princeton University, was also one of the earliest to use a thematic approach developed by Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968). This archive was undoubtedly to provide the impetus for what is considered the most innovative and insightful approach into the psychology of iconographical perception created by Panofsky, who was not only a friend of the founder but also one of the most ardent users and supporters of the Index.
It was in the first few decades of the twentieth century that the value of iconography was analyzed for the first time in humanistic terms. Typical of such studies were those by Charles Rufus Morey (1877–1955), who saw iconography as a linchpin in understanding the broader context of any art-historical work. Iconography could therefore be used to determine date, style, and the broader sociocultural position of the work and was no longer limited to subject matter. This movement was ultimately to lead to a certain degree of stagnation in a number of studies prior to the 1930s in which iconography was a slave to the determination of date and origin. It was Morey who was responsible for bringing Erwin Panofsky to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. It is difficult not to acknowledge the influence the index must have had on Panofsky's theories, considering that the work undertaken in the archive had been under way some twenty years before his work (Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, 1939) was published. Morey, like Panofsky, was a firm believer in the theory that iconography could be "read" like a text—a practice that continues in most cataloging systems. Though he is generally seen as the father of iconography, Panofsky's theories (see sidebar) have been sharply criticized
in the late twentieth century, but his work is pivotal in understanding the methodology of subject analysis and would influence the role that iconography was to assume to the end of the twentieth century and beyond.
If Panofsky is seen as the scholar whose work culminated in the best-known study, Aby Warburg (1866–1929), a like-minded scholar, was also instrumental in promoting icono-graphical research methods. Panofksy was also preceded by some notable iconographers, mostly on the other side of the Atlantic (with the exception of Meyer Schapiro [1905–1996], who, although born in Lithuania, lived in the United States), whose theories paralleled his own. Among these were Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) and Edgar Wind (1900–1971) of the Warburg Institute. All German by birth and training, they saw a need to evaluate the work from an interdisciplinary perspective in which its true meaning could be elucidated not just in relation to its immediate context but in its broader value, thus revealing "the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion" (Panofsky, 1939, p. 7). Panofsky's theories are very much the product of the art-historical milieu in which he lived and worked, a world in which art history was termed Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte (art history as the history of ideas; see Dvorák), and of course his Kantian philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a major influence in Panofsky's formulation of a number of theories, such as "Copernican Revolution," in which he argues that it is the image or representation that makes the object possible instead of the opposite. Kant's belief that the human brain played an active role in perception and was not just a passive recipient influenced Panofsky's structure as to how the brain perceived images and structured iconography. It was at this stage that the terms iconography and iconology were revised, with iconography redefined as the basic stage of interpretation and iconology seen as the more advanced stage of interpretation.
Iconography was to develop slowly yet consistently through the rest of the twentieth century until a period of critical self-examination in art history brought about some new developments. The whole discipline—not just iconography or Panofsky's theories—came under criticism and revision in the 1960s and 1970s. The relevance of iconography in art-historical studies was questioned, mainly by iconographers, and relegated to a secondary position by some factions within the discipline. Iconography, like Panofsky's theories, was seen as resistant to change and too self-contained within its own parameters. Now that this period of self-examination seems to have abated, the relevance of iconography to what is called the "new art history" has once again been accepted as one of the fundamental tenets of the discipline. The implications for its understanding have also been extended into previously under-researched fields, such as reception, color, gender, and ethnography.