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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Iconography

Ana Rodrigues

Iconography is the discipline that systematically studies the questions surrounding the content of works of art, as opposed to form. Among the main areas of Iconography, one could quote: the identification of the sources of inspiration of the image; the analysis of the contamination of forms and of the meanings of the images in other contexts; the study of the symbolical, profound and intrinsic meanings of the actual image, in which this level of this reading more adequately denominated of Iconology. The history of Iconography, as a discipline and a method, is inseparable from Iconology, being its terms many times used indifferently.

Keywords: art history; symbol; visual representation

Since the Renaissance that studies performed under different perspectives have contributed to strengthen this area of study that would only become autonomous in the 19th century. The study of the ancient portraiture carried out by Achilles Statius (1569), and later, the famous portraiture series of Anthony van Dyck (1645), entitled in the 1759 edition as Iconographie ou vie des hommes illustres; the decoding of the symbols of Primitive Christianism by Molanus (1570), by Antonio Bosio (1632) – whose Roma Sotterranea was written right after the discovery of the catacombs (1578) -, by Johann Reiske (1685), by Ciampini (1690-99), and by Gottfried Arnold (1700-01); the concern in studying in depth the monuments of Antiquity to access their contents seen in Recueil de Caylus (1752-67) and in the works of Wincklemann (1766); and the use of literary sources as themes for paintings aiming to establish a deeper and more general meaning of the symbolic [SYMBOL] idea of the work of art (Bellori, 1672), are some of the pioneering works about Iconography carried out during the Modern Age.

In the 19th century in France the first “school” of Iconography was established dedicated to the study of Medieval Iconography. Despite these studies focusing on the research of primitive Christianism, they would constitute an important starting point for the successive studies about medieval symbolism of Christian Iconography. Amongst these researchers the following names are highlighted: Adolphe-Napoléon Didron (1843); Fernand Cabrol (1855-1937) and Henri Leclercq (1869-1945) – authors of the largest dictionary (1907-1953) about Christian iconography and an unavoidable reference to date -; and Émile Mâle who discovered that in medieval art each form contains a concept, highlighting the symbolical and didactic nature of Christian art. About Iconography, so called classical, of the Gods and allegories in the first quarter of the 20th century, the German and Austrian schools are most prominent. Outside of the academic environments, the methodology of Aby Warburg shakes the traditional boundaries of Art History and makes Iconography and Iconology disciplines that, with the histories of style, reception and materials, most contribute to the comprehension of the work of art.

Aby Warburg dedicated himself to the systematic study of Renaissance art, travelling around the world and putting together a gigantic library, whose 60,000 volumes are exported, in 1933 from Hamburg to the Warburg Institute in London, incorporated in 1944 into the University of London. Aby Warburg’s research went in the opposite direction of the Wolfflian formalist approach of Art History, which reduced the theme of the work of art to a mere pretext for the plastic research of the artist, because it understood the work of art as a symptom of a given culture, relating it to political, religious and social factors of its historical context. It was with a systematic research of survival of the Antiquity forms during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that Aby Warburg understood that by a process of “contamination”, at times, “re-interpretative”, the forms of the works of art would reappear here and there, at times with new meanings, generally associated to some cultural or spiritual change. All of these principles were already present in the famous conference given in Ferrara in 1912 about Palazzo Schifanoia’s frescoes, in which it recovers, to describe the methodology used, the title of the famous manual by Cesare Ripa (1593, 1st ed. Illustrated 1603), Iconology – a sixteenth century book, in which the Gods of the Classical Antiquity, or the figures inspired on them, are called to personify concepts, for which the author provides various symbolical meanings of each one of the them. In spite of this, only in 1931, did G.J. Hoogewerff defined “Iconology”, differentiating it from the traditional method of “Iconography”.

Under the influence of Aby Warburg and the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, the biggest figure of Panofsky is emphasised. Also in debt of the ideas of Dvorak and of the concept of Reigl, Kunstwollen, Panofsky establishes, with precision, in Studies in Iconology (1939), and deepening later in Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955), the methodology to access the thematic comprehension of the works, which was based on three levels of comprehension built one on top of the other: a first, descriptive, a second, of identification – that of Iconography – and, a third, of Iconology that intends to access a deeper comprehension of the intrinsic meanings of the work of art as cultural sign or as symbol of the unconscious (Fig. 1). In this sense, any form of artistic expression is susceptible to an iconological reading, even those that are not likely of an iconographic reading, like abstract art. Nevertheless, in practice, the most frequent application of this method is directed towards decoding the symbolical and allegorical meaning of the work, that is, by the iconographical reading of the work.

The historians of art with a purely aesthetic interest in the reception of the work of art, like Lionello Venturi (1945), consider the iconographic method like an obstacle to the understanding of the work of art. However, the study of themes is the key to revealing the relationships of art with other cultural expressions, thus placing the artistic object in the history of culture and mentalities.
The possibility of each work meaning the entire universe that produced it, presents many fragilities (Gilbert, 1952), because in most cases a work of art only relates to a part or parts of the context that produced it. Another current criticism of the iconological method is that many readings do not reconstruct the historical truth, but do deal with the interpretations made a posteriori by specialists in Art History, adding to the work, readings and meanings with which its reception was cumulating. Otto Pacht (1956) denounced that the need of Iconology to decode conditioned the reading of complex ideological programmes disguised under realistic representations, without any proof that such a programme had been foreseen by the person who ordered it or the artist for that painting (Fig. 2). And this states Pach because the iconological method developed in the direction of interpreting the conscious instead of the unconscious symbolism.
In other words, in practice, Iconology deviates from its initial intention, but ideally it would be a more comprehensive method for the historical interpretation of art, at least for Western art until the beginning of the 20th century, whose erudition and elitism has significant articulations with philosophy, religion and literature.

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