Art History Lab

Unraveling the Meaning of Iconography in Art History: Symbols and Imagery Explored

Unraveling the Meaning of Iconography in Art History

Iconography is a complex concept that refers to the study of symbols and images in art, their origins, and their meanings. From ancient times to contemporary art, iconography has played a crucial role in the interpretation of art, storytelling, and religious practices.

In this article, we will explore two main topics related to iconography: Understanding Iconography in Art History and Unpacking the Definition of Iconography: What is Iconography?

Understanding Iconography in Art History

Definition and Origins of Iconography

Iconography comes from two Greek words – ikon, meaning image, and graphia, meaning writing. It focuses on the visual images that people use to represent and communicate beliefs, ideas, and narratives.

The word iconography originally meant a collection of paintings depicting famous people, but, over time, the definition expanded to include all types of visual art.

The concept of iconography originated in ancient Greece, where painters and sculptors imbued their works with symbolic meanings.

They created images that carried specific messages that communicated knowledge and beliefs to people who couldn’t read or write. The symbols and images in early art were usually straightforward and naturalistic, as they were based on recognizable objects.

Iconographic Attributes in Art

The Byzantine period marked a turning point in the development of iconography. For centuries, the use of religious images was a central element in Christian worship.

However, the iconoclast vs. iconophile debate in the 8th and 9th centuries challenged this practice.

Iconoclasts argued that the use of religious imagery was pushing Christians towards idolatry. Iconophiles, on the other hand, believed that religious imagery helped worshipers connect with God.

Despite the controversy, Byzantine artists continued to create religious works of art. In these works, they used specific iconographic attributes to represent certain religious figures or narratives.

For example, the Triptych with the Mandylion, a 15th-century Russian icon that features Christ and Mary, has very recognizable and hieratic depictions of the two figures. Mary is often shown with a veil, holding a small baby, while Christ has an austere expression with a halo filled with symbolic animals, representing the divine unity.

In iconography, display frames, like the oklad and riza, are used to cover the icon without obscuring the representation underneath. This practice emphasizes the importance of the image and protects it from damage or misuse.

Unpacking the Definition of Iconography: What is Iconography? Natural, Conventional, and Intrinsic Meanings

Iconography is not just about identifying and interpreting symbolisms.

It also relates to how these symbols create meaning in art. There are three types of meanings in iconography: natural, conventional, and intrinsic.

Natural meaning deals with the recognition and association of the symbol presented. The image of an animal, for example, will naturally evoke the characteristics of that animal in the viewer’s mind.

Conventional meaning pertains to the cultural knowledge that surrounds a symbol. The color blue, for instance, is associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian iconography, but by itself, it does not carry any particular meaning.

Intrinsic meaning is the deeper symbolic meaning behind an image. It is essential in understanding the use of particular images and how they carry ever-changing symbolic connotations throughout history.

Intended and Implied Iconography

The relationship between the artist, observer, and commissioner plays a significant role in the interpretation of iconography. Intended iconography is the artist’s deliberate selection of subject, symbol, and colors.

The intended iconography in the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, for example, was selected by the artist to represent Renaissance ideals of beauty, love, and desire. Implied iconography, on the other hand, is the unintentional symbolism that emerges due to the historical context in which the artwork was created.

For example, the use of stylized clouds in a painting might imply a heavenly share of the scene, making it seem divined.

Art historians and critics have used implied and intended iconography to understand art throughout history.

Giorgio Vasari, a sixteenth-century Italian painter, architect, and writer, is known for writing about artistic technique and for his own narrative style, where he interpreted the paintings of early Italian masters using historical context and symbolic languages. In the Treaty of picturis et imaginibus sacris, a sixteenth-century treaty on iconography, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti outlines the use of iconography in the Catholic church and provides recommendations to the clergy on the portrayal of religious imagery.


As we’ve seen, iconography is a broad and essential aspect of art history that requires careful study and interpretation to understand the symbolism and meaning behind artwork. The use of iconographic attributes, intentional and unintentional symbolism, and historical context all influence the meaning and interpretation of artwork.

By understanding these concepts, we can appreciate art in a deeper and more meaningful way, not only as a work of art but also as a representation of human culture and history.

Examples of Iconography in Art

Iconography is present in almost all works of art, and artists use it to express their ideas, emotions, and beliefs through visual images. Throughout history, artists have used iconography to communicate the essence of the narrative, evoke emotions, express cultural and societal values, and pay homage to religious and mythological traditions.

In this article, we will explore two additional main topics related to iconography:

Examples of Iconography in Art and Other

Examples of Iconography in Art History.

Examples of Iconography in Art

Annunciation by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

The Annunciation is a Christian iconography that represents the biblical story of the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce Jesus Christ’s conception. In the Annunciation by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Mary is positioned at the center of the artwork, seated on a marble bench, and wearing a long, flowing dress.

She holds a book with her right hand while looking up at the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel appears as a young man, with an elaborate set of butterfly-like wings, and his left hand raised in greeting.

He carries a crown of lilies, which represent Mary’s purity and Jesus Christ’s birth. Verrocchio and da Vinci used iconographic positioning to convey the sacredness of the moment.

The main focus of the artwork is the moment when Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear a son, Jesus Christ. The use of Madonna lilies and the marble table is symbolic, emphasizing Mary’s role in the birth of Christ and her purity.

This painting reflects the iconography of religious imagery from the late 15th century and emphasizes the importance of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism.

Primavera by Sandro Botticelli

Primavera is an allegory of Spring, commissioned by the Medici family in Florence during the Renaissance period. Sandro Botticelli, one of the most influential artists of the Italian Renaissance, created Primavera between 1477 and 1482.

The painting encompasses a range of Classical themes and Greco-Roman mythology, depicting figures such as Chloris, Flora, and Venus. The painting’s iconography centers around the figure of Venus, who stands in the center, a classical symbol of love and beauty.

The three Graces on the left symbolize generosity, beauty, and nature’s bounty, along with the Horae or the phases of the moon, symbolizing the passage of time. The use of the orange and lemon trees in the background represents Mediterranean fertility.

Primavera is a classic example of the early Renaissance fascination with Greco-Roman mythology, rebirth, and renewal. The use of iconography in this painting allows for the emotional depiction of spring imagery that remains significant even in contemporary popular culture.


Examples of Iconography in Art History

Various Artists and Their Iconographies

Many artists throughout history have used iconography to incorporate religious themes and beliefs into their artworks. Dutch artist Jan van Eyck, for example, created the Ghent Altarpiece, with its religious symbolism, intricate paintings, and intricate details.

English poet and artist William Blake produced a series of works that incorporated Christian iconography. His visionary works explored themes of psychology, politics, and religion.

Flemish Baroque artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens produced the Assumption of the Virgin, which features the Virgin Mary being taken into heaven by four angels. Mexican painter Frida Kahlo explored her turbulent life in her art, often including religious iconography in her self-portraits, such as the Two Fridas.

In contrast, German artist Albrecht Drer often used iconography to incorporate his religious beliefs into prints like Knight, Death, and the Devil.

Iconography and Culture

Iconography often reflects the themes and values of the culture in which it is created. For example, in Inca culture in South America, art was used as a way to communicate stories and communicate societal values.

The use of iconography in Inca art was essential in the depiction of religious and cultural beliefs. Similarly, in African art, various symbols and images depict cultural traditions, stories, and daily life.

In contemporary art, the use of iconography is often cultural, political, or social. Visual artworks often incorporate symbols that express shared experiences and beliefs, reflecting societal values or critique.

Elements like the use of emojis or meme culture offer contemporary ways of creating and interpreting iconography.


Iconography has played a vital role in art throughout history. Artists have used symbols, imagery, and metaphors both intentionally and unintentionally to create works of art that convey deeper meaning beyond its physicality.

Iconography, over time, has evolved from straightforward and naturalistic to the complex and intricate forms that reflect the cultural, social, and political values of different periods and societies. Artists continue to employ iconography, which remains necessary for the interpretation of art, stimulating our imaginations and deepening our knowledge of human culture and history.

In this article, we explored the subject of iconography in art history, discussing its definition, origins, iconographic attributes in art, and the different types of meanings associated with it. We then delved deeper into the topic, highlighting the importance of iconography through various examples of classic works of art.

We further explored the various ways artists incorporated iconography into their works throughout history, demonstrating how icons are not solely visual cues, rather a means of delving into the context, culture, and human experiences that a piece of art expresses. Through this article, we can appreciate the impact of iconography on art and culture throughout history and recognize the significant role it plays in understanding the essence and symbolism in works of art.

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