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Trends And Developments

Computerization and its application to art history has been the most dominant factor in the popular renewal of interest in iconography. User studies have shown the popularity of accessing subject matter in such venues as museum and gallery databases. There has been a similar renewed interest in scholarly research. Iconography is developing along twin tracks whereby the traditional is being refined with a greater need for detail and new needs are being created with the opening up of new fields. Large-scale iconographical projects have developed in art history with specializations, such as mythology, music, classical and legal material, medicine, and costume, to name just a few. Up to the end of the twentieth century, iconographical studies were largely concerned with Western art and the representational but must now encompass the abstract, stylized, non-Western, and nonrepresentational.

Generalities will no longer suffice; more detail is required that reflects the study of minutiae now demanded by scholarship. With such details, specific iconographic subfields, which had hitherto been neglected or treated only in passing, have assumed greater importance. Among these are such issues as gender, race, gesture, color, and politics. A number of these concepts have developed in response to new art-historical concerns. With the opening up of art history into new fields of research, we have also moved into non-Western art and an iconography that was never extensively researched. Islamic, Judaic, Chinese, and Indian art forms are now being studied from an iconographical and iconological perspective; consequently there is a need to develop a suitable terminology and to apply different approaches that theories such as Panofsky's cannot encompass. Whereas in the past iconographical studies dealt largely with classical, medieval, or religious subjects, the whole field of study has opened significantly and now reflects a number of disciplines, not just the more classically oriented. Iconography is responding to a widening field of scholarship. In all of these developments, and especially in its associations with other disciplines, the humanistic background of iconographical research is being reinforced and extended.


Chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, Morey was a historian of early Christian art whose primary field of study was the iconography of Italian art of the pre-700 period. Apart from his scholarly studies, which ranged from research on gold-glass mosaics to early Latin manuscripts and iconographical motifs of the origins of early Christian art, he is best remembered for founding the Index of Christian Art in 1917. As an iconographer he realized that the major obstacle to understanding the development of particular themes and subjects lay in the lack of available knowledge. It was this that led to his establishment of the world's largest iconographically organized archive of medieval art. Morey's studies, while now slightly outdated, demonstrate his belief that the full understanding of a work of art depends on the use of iconography in a contextualized manner. A close friend of Panofsky, Morey believed that iconography was an organic entity that was constantly developing and that could be understood only in relation to what was known at any one time.

If iconography has changed, so has the way in which it is used. We have moved beyond iconographical interpretation into issues of reception that, in many ways, are an extension of Panofsky's cultural contextualization. Now, however, there is greater focus on the specific work (and what we can learn from it) than on the national or cultural contexts and their relationship to subject matter, which was Panofsky's premise for understanding iconology. We are now attempting to understand not just the hidden meaning behind a specific theme or motif but also how subjects are received and understood by the viewer. The new focus of iconography demands that viewers transpose themselves to the period of creation and reception and operate at a spiritual level that moves beyond the work of art itself. It is disappointing that the majority of iconographical studies fails to consider form and function—factors that are pivotal to understanding the meaning of any work holistically.

Despite the application of the term to disciplines other than the visual, iconography remains very much within the province of the art-historical world. Its popular use in relation to textual, musical, political, religious, theatrical, or dramatic studies, to name just a few of the disciplines to which it has been applied, is nearly always based on visual material within those fields. Its use is therefore less clearly defined in such fields although, as a concept, there seems no reason why it should not be applied even at all three of Panofsky's levels. Iconography still remains highly dependent on the need to find a textual support for its subject matter—a characteristic that has impeded research. The overriding need to find a textual basis, even where none may exist, has created an unreal association between the verbal and the visual. Iconographical scholarship, especially that of the medieval period, has looked for sources for the visual among a variety of documents, from the legal to the poetic, when no visual relationship may exist. But even if still text-driven, iconography has fortunately moved away from the need to find the earliest example of whatever theme or subject is being studied.

Chronological or developmental stages in the history of a motif are no longer seen as being of paramount importance. There have been some trends to extend iconographical significance to reflect an even wider application beyond what has hitherto been defined. Terms such as aboutness or relatedness denote concepts and ideas beyond the iconological. Brought about largely through the application of computers to iconographical studies, such terms reflect the need to extend meaning to the absolute. Unsatisfactory in meaning and application, they attempt to extend the iconological significance of a work to what are perceived to be broader, yet related, iconological concepts that, like the terms themselves, are highly subjective and may not be supported by factual evidence. If iconology was believed to have separated art from form and content, this new direction threatens to put such relationships even further into the background.

HENRI VAN DE WAAL (1910–1972)

Born in Rotterdam, van de Waal began his studies in 1929 at the University of Leiden, which was to be his academic home for the rest of his career. He received his Ph.D. in 1940 for a study on the seventeenth-century Batavian revolt. As a writer he is best known for his iconological study on three centuries of representing Dutch national history, Drie eeuwen vaderlandsche geschieduitbeelding 1500–1800: Een iconologische studie (The Hague, 1952), which, although ready for the printer in 1942, was not published until 1952 as the typescript was destroyed by the Germans during the occupation of the Netherlands. While interned in a prisoner of war camp, he began to formulate his theories on structuring a system for iconographic classification that eventually was called ICONCLASS and was published between 1973 and 1985. After the war van de Waal was named director of the University of Leiden's print room and was later made professor of art history there. His classification system is based on Panofsky's pre-iconographic and iconographic levels with nothing iconological in the structure. Factually based, it merges form and content and is now the most widely used iconographical classification system in the world.


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Colum Hourihane

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityIconography - Historical Development, Cesare Ripa (fl. 1593), Émile MÂle (1862–1954), Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968)