The term iconicity designates a relationship of similarity between the sign (form of expression or symbol) and that which it represents. Certain parameters, defined by a group and in a certain context, determine such relationship of similarity, not only from the point of view of production but also of perception. The same term, applied particularly to an image, also denotes a double articulation: an articulation of the image with the world of the visible, on the one hand, and the articulation of the image with the «non-figurable» universe, on the other. Defining the concept of iconicity therefore implies an interrogation about the imaginary, the mystery, the enigma and the invisible.
The relationship of image with the world, but also its relationship with the imaginary and the «non figurable», constitutes one of the main issues that the word iconicity drags along with it. Keeping it actual, this issue is translated into a debate that counteracts the following paradigms: on the one hand, the image conceived as a project of similarity, of duplication or copy of the world, and on the other hand, the image as a project of articulation between the figurable and the invisible. Thus Stephanie Katz refers to both typologies of the visible, proposing a notion of «image-screen» to designate the «resistance» to the propositional, a notion that contradicts the representationist theories. What presupposes a conception of image that moves away from a «screen» of monophasic specular projection, susceptible of showing an imperfect duplication of an original model, in favour of a «biphasic screen conceived as an boundary-articulation between what is accessible by sight and what escapes it» . At the heart of the famous debate between iconoclasts and iconophiles we precisely find the tension that is played between the concern with the risk of idolatry which came from the image-reflex, imperfect and illusory copy – ultimately, the absolute perfection of God - , and the defence of a bipolar and dynamic definition of icon .
While surface of inscription and concealment plan, the icon, in this perspective, refers to the abstraction of the real. In the context of divine, magical and ancient funeral ritual practices, it is already a desire of creation, expressed in the way of a symbolic appropriation of the world that the icon responds. Such an «iconophile» conception of image, especially fixed by Byzantine art, calls the establishment of the look, as well as of the enigma, which are visible there. That is, to the doctrine of the «natural image» and the consubstantial one counteracts to the «artificial image» or the icon. The first corresponds to a divine, originating and founding image that as such does not need visibility. Posing the problem of similarity of the Son with the Father, is the relationship of substantial identity that makes the «natural image» a first, invisible image model of all the image. To this conception that projects the image to a theological level (natural image) the icon (artificial image) is juxtapose, the one which is placed at the level of economic enigma. If the Son maintains with the Father a relationship of essential pure intimacy, on the other hand, and simultaneously, he maintains with humanity a relationship of relative identity, subjected to sensitive and visible conditions, which means a relationship characterised by the economy of similitude (homoiôsis kat' oikonomian). As Mondzain points out, the icon is defined as a relationship of double similarity (homoiôsis), with the visible and the invisible, the presence and the absence. The icon (eikôn) relationship with its model is a formal and intentional relationship. Instead of an object of passive fascination, the icon is a transfigured agent. Mediatising the extreme terms, the icon returns to the one who contemplates it awareness not only of its seen nature as well as of the presence of emptiness. More than a mimetic duplication of the material world, in terms of a representative realism, the iconic figure manifests the emptiness and the absence of that which it designates, evoking right from the start, mainly, the principles of pictorial abstraction.
In Byzantium, and in throughout the oriental Church, the icon acquires a semiotic meaning that justifies it being considered a metaphor . In this sense, and «just like for the first time Philo of Alexandria and Origen observed, and later, in more depth, the works of Gregory of Nyssa and of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, [the icon] is a material and expressed sign of the immaterial and inexpressible essence of the divinity. That which is painted on the icon is a representation in the primary and direct sense» . Such a representation would be determined by the pictorial canons imposed by a culture or particular groups. The icon-image, which Panofsky talks about, is precisely defined by a deliberate, conventional, encoded and recognizable representation.
In a broader semiotic sense, the icon designates by itself a certain type of relationship of the sign with its referent. Charles Peirce defines the icon in the frame of a typology that also includes the index and the symbol, distinct amongst themselves by the respective degree of referentiality. While the symbol resends to the object that it denotes from the strength of the law/convention that determines the interpretation of this same symbol (the words of a language are an example of this) and the index resends to the object that it denotes once really affected by it (examples are the symptoms of an illness), the icon resends to the object in virtue of its own characteristics, resembling that same object . Morris would simply say that a sign is iconic in that it has properties of the object it denotes. A photograph, a drawing, a diagram, but also a logical formula and especially a mental image are examples of this. Referring to the semiotization of the referent, Morris even admits the «perfect iconicity» when the sign identifies with the actual denoted object . Nevertheless, the definition of icon is not free from ambiguity. Not being confused with its object, the icon does not necessarily possess all the properties of the denoted object. This is how Moles establishes the scales of iconicity. Yet Peirce distinguishes, in the interior of the icon, the images, similar to the object by some nature, the diagrams which reproduce relationships between the parts and the metaphors, through which a more generic parallelism is established . Referring to Goodman, Oswald Ducrot also suggests that the icon may be considered a particular type of referential relationship, designated by exemplification .
An exemplary case is the one of ostensive signs (Farassino), when the ostensible object is conventionally elected as signifier of the class of which the actual object is part of . To designate the signs that refer to an object through the exposure of one of its parts a new category was also created, close to the previous one (Ekmann and Friesen, 1969; Veron, 1970; Eco, 1971): the intrinsic or continuous signs . Both the ostensive signs and the intrinsic signs are elaborated by convention, requiring: «that culture has defined recognizable objects based on some emerging characteristics, or features of recognition»; «that a second convention (of the graphical type) had established that some graphic artifices correspond to some of these properties and that certain features of recognition should absolutely reproduce so that the actual object can be recognized»; and finally, «that the convention has established the modalities of production of the perceptible correspondence between features of recognition and graphic features» . Eco stresses the impossibility of being able to distinguish between motivated signs (this would be the case of indexes and icons, once defined by the relationship of similarity or continuity with the referent) and conventional signs or symbols. Not confining to a model of mimetic reproduction, are the particular modalities of production and perception that determine the relationship of similarity between the icon and its object.
The contemporary typology of the sign of Pierce, when thought of within the most ancient registers, includes some contradictions, as Regis Debray states. Debray says: «the orthodox icon, for example, is ‘indexical’ by its miraculous and thaumaturgical properties (in Russia, the beggars wear icons in the manner of amulets around their necks) » . The author proposes a relationship between the three types of images (index-image, icon-image and symbol-image) and different types of appropriation through the look: «the index-image fascinates. It incites us to almost touch it. It has a magical value. The icon-image only inspires pleasure. It has an artistic value. The symbol-image requires a certain distance. It has a sociological value, as a sign of status or marker of belonging» . This is how one understands the primacy of the statutory on the painting amongst the ancients and the elimination of it in the modern sculpture, evidencing in this case the will to affirm an abstract and symbolical order. In the same way, it is important to note the fact that the Greco-Roman «art» passes from the index to the icon, while in modern art one assists the passage of the icon to the symbol. Concerning the current designated visual era, one may foresee a kind of post-modern archaic tendency turned towards a recovery of the indexical, not only through the valuation of materials, but also thanks to other modes of inscription of the body in the sensitive relationship with the image.
More than the painting, the photograph is for many considered the prototype of an «indexical icon». Reproducing reality through an apparent similarity, the photograph maintains a causal relationship with that same reality, witnessing, according to Roland Barthes , the «emanation of the referent» and an «it happened like this». That is, not confusing it with reality, the photograph reproduces, in perfect analogy, a «necessarily real object» . However, aiming to contradict a kind of evidence of the photographic iconicity, the arbitrariness of the photograph, the encoded structure and the connotation that are underlying it, they also stand out like widely studied dimensions. There are many authors who have studied about the semiotics of photography: Greimas, Hjelmeslev, Floch, Calabrese, Metz, Goodman e Eco, amongst others .
Going back to a broader notion of iconicity, it is important to reveal the enigmatic nature that it implies, designating the relationship of a certain sensitive manifestation with the imaginary, the mystery, the «non-figurable». While responding simultaneously to the demands of formal and material similarity, the icon is assumed as a dual unit, to the image of the same, essential, which characterises its originating model. This implies interpreting the imitation and the relationship of similitude in a sense that would contradict the effect of duplication and prevents us of classifying the icon as strictly metaphorical and redundant. As Mondzain refers , the icon is the «economy of image», which means that it opens to inscription, not limited, of the «natural image» («non-figurable») in the flesh of the visible image (iconicity).
Lastly, it should be added that iconicity is also applied to the text, alongside the image itself. To designate the set of written-visual configurations the expression iconic texts is used. The notion of «woven-text», illustrating the craftsmanship of words (intimately inspired in the etymological origin of textus), may serve, by approximation, to denote such a combination of letter and image. More precisely, the long pictograph (Latin-Greek hybrid term that designates painting and writing) history is to be emphasised. The pictograms therefore are «kinds of sign-images, talking drawings that seem to have been practiced, just like in the North American Indians, by communities of hunters and fishermen. Many writings, like the ones of the Chinese, the Sumerians or from ancient Egypt (hieroglyphs) were born from the pictography .