Iconography vs. Iconology

By Jaxson

  • Iconography

    Iconography, as a branch of art history, studies the identification, description, and the interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style. The word iconography comes from the Greek εἰκών (“image”) and γράφειν (“to write” or to draw).

    A secondary meaning (based on a non-standard translation of the Greek and Russian equivalent terms) is the production or study of the religious images, called “icons”, in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian tradition (see Icon). This usage, which many consider simply incorrect, is mostly found in works translated from languages such as Greek or Russian, with the correct term being “icon painting”.

    In art history, “an iconography” may also mean a particular depiction of a subject in terms of the content of the image, such as the number of figures used, their placing and gestures. The term is also used in many academic fields other than art history, for example semiotics and media studies, and in general usage, for the content of images, the typical depiction in images of a subject, and related senses. Sometimes distinctions have been made between iconology and iconography, although the definitions, and so the distinction made, varies.

    When referring to movies, genres are immediately recognizable through their iconography, motifs that become associated with a specific genre through repetition.

  • Iconology

    Iconology is a method of interpretation in cultural history and the history of the visual arts used by Aby Warburg, Erwin Panofsky and their followers that uncovers the cultural, social, and historical background of themes and subjects in the visual arts. Though Panofsky differentiated between iconology and iconography, the distinction is not very widely followed, “and they have never been given definitions accepted by all iconographers and iconologists”. Few 21st-century authors continue to use the term “iconology” consistently, and instead use iconography to cover both areas of scholarship.

    To those who use the term, iconology is derived from synthesis rather than scattered analysis and examines symbolic meaning on more than its face value by reconciling it with its historical context and with the artist’s body of work – in contrast to the widely descriptive iconography, which, as described by Panofsky, is an approach to studying the content and meaning of works of art that is primarily focused on classifying, establishing dates, provenance and other necessary fundamental knowledge concerning the subject matter of an artwork that is needed for further interpretation.It should also be noted that Panofsky’s “use of iconology as the principle tool of art analysis brought him critics.” For instance, in 1946, Jan Gerrit Van Gelder “criticized Panofsky’s iconology as putting too much emphasis on the symbolic content of the work of art, neglecting its formal aspects and the work as a unity of form and content.” Furthermore, iconology is mostly avoided by social historians who do not accept the theoretical dogmaticism in the work of Panofsky.

  • Iconography (noun)

    A set of specified or traditional symbolic forms associated with the subject or theme of a stylized genre of art.

  • Iconography (noun)

    The art of representation by pictures or images; the description or study of portraiture or representation, as of persons.

    “the iconography of the ancients”

  • Iconography (noun)

    The study of representative art in general.

  • Iconology (noun)

    The study of icons in art or art history.


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