Iconography is both a method and an approach to studying the content and meanings of visuals. In its colloquial use, the term “iconography” describes the motif of a particular picture or a specific group of artworks. A general distinction can be made between religious, mainly Christian iconography and secular or political iconography. In the context of visual research “iconography” is used to describe a qualitative method of visual content analysis.
Originally devised in the context of sixteenth-century art collecting to categorize the particular visual motifs of paintings, iconography was first modernized by the art historian Aby M. Warburg (1866 –1929) at the beginning of the twentieth century (Schmidt 1993; Diers 1995; Forster 1999; Rampley 2001). It was further refined by art historian Erwin Panofsky (1892 –1968), who popularized this method of visual interpretation in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.
Warburg used the term “iconography” in his early research, but in 1908 replaced this term with “iconology,” describing a particular method of visual interpretation (Schmidt 1993, 24). Panofsky, a colleague of Warburg, published a seminal article in 1932, introducing a three-step method of visual interpretation first labeled “iconography,” and later termed “iconology” (Panofsky 1955/1982). Panofsky himself did not give credit to his iconological predecessor (Schmidt 1993, 12), leading subsequent scholars to link the iconological method only with Panofsky’s name.
Iconography As A Method
Iconography can best be described as a qualitative method of visual content analysis and interpretation, influenced by cultural traditions and guided by research interests originating in both the humanities and the social sciences. In its Warburgian sense, iconography/iconology is an interdisciplinary comparative method, focused on the “visual interval” (Rampley 2001), both temporal and spatial.
Panofsky (1955/1982, 40 – 41) distinguishes between the first step, pre-iconographical description, the second step, iconographical analysis, and the third step, iconological interpretation. To this day, Panofsky’s three steps constitute the core of iconography as a method. These three steps form the “act of interpretation.” Each of the three acts has a different “object of interpretation”; each needs different “equipment for interpretation” and follows a different “corrective principle of interpretation.”
Pre-iconographical description focuses on the primary or natural subject matter, which is usually the “world of artistic motifs.” Iconographical analysis is concerned with “conventional subject matter” – culturally shared visual signs and connotations – and thus “the world of images, stories and allegories.” Iconological interpretation aims at unraveling the “intrinsic meaning or content constituting the world of ‘symbolical’ values” (Panofsky 1955/1982, 40).
The “equipment for interpretation” changes from (1) mere practical experience and familiarity with depicted objects to (2) knowledge of literary sources to, finally, (3) “synthetic intuition,” “conditioned by personal psychology and ‘Weltanschauung’.”
Panofsky’s (1955/1982, 41) reference to the German term Weltanschauung not only hints at his personal roots, but also reveals a primary influence on his thinking, fellow emigrant and eminent sociologist Karl Mannheim. In 1923, Mannheim published an article in German on “The interpretation of ‘Weltanschauung’ ” in which he not only defines Weltanschauung as “global outlook of an epoch” (Mannheim 1923/1952, 33) but hints at an interpretation method involving three levels of meaning (“objective,” “expressive,” and “documentary”) as well as “objective correctives” of interpretation. Panofsky adapted Mannheim’s sociological method of interpretation to suit the needs of art history. Both sociology and art history are interested in understanding and unraveling how individuals as well as groups of people make sense of cultural artifacts and how, in turn, the visuals shape cultural belief systems at a given time. The method gives access to processes of meaning construction and meaning attribution to particular groups and motifs of pictures. Although systematic, iconography as a method is also highly subjective, raising questions about the validity of the interpretation result.
Iconography And Iconology
Many researchers use both terms interchangeably. But in Warburg’s and Panofsky’s understanding, iconology as a method went beyond iconography. While the iconographical analysis only constitutes the second of three steps in the interpretation process, iconology is the ultimate goal. Panofsky (1955/1982, 31–32) pointed to the difference between the two, hinting at the etymological origin of both terms. Iconography’s suffix “graphy” is derived from Greek graphein, meaning to write, thus stipulating that this is a merely descriptive method, aiming at an objective and neutral description and classification of depicted motifs. Iconology, on the other hand, relates etymologically to the more encompassing concept of logos. Thus, Panofsky (1955/1982, 32) concludes, “iconology . . . is a method of interpretation which arises from synthesis rather than analysis.”
Iconography As An Approach
Iconography in the Warburg tradition operates with a complex concept and understanding of the visual. Warburg himself enlarged the scope of art history by including “any visual image,” regardless of its artistic quality. This meant that press photographs and other forms of mass-mediated imagery could be considered appropriate objects of study for art history. The concept of iconography is closely linked to the German language. The key term of the German iconographic tradition – Bild (image, picture, visual) – cannot be fully translated into English. While the English language offers three different terms, there is only one word in German to describe visuals in the broadest sense. Warburg’s definition of Bild is twofold: any visual consists of a material and an immaterial dimension, in German conveniently labeled as Abbild (material image) and Denkbild (mental/immaterial image). For every material image, there are immaterial images corresponding to the material image. But not every immaterial image takes on a material form. Warburg was only interested in those visuals that have both dimensions, leading to the hypothesis that the material images can be used as sources to learn about the mental images of times past.
Scholars outside of art history have also used the terms iconography and iconology to denote not a method, but an approach. The most influential work in this respect is Mitchell’s Iconology (1987). He takes the word “iconology” literally, aiming at “a study of the ‘logos’ (the words, ideas, discourse, or ‘science’) of ‘icons’ (images, pictures, or likenesses)” (Mitchell 1987, 1). Van Leeuwen (2000) connects Panofsky’s approach with semiotics in the tradition of Roland Barthes. Other works limit themselves to Christian religious iconography; that is, the classification and analysis of figures, poses, gestures, garments, colors, objects, and symbols that denote religious stories and theological concepts in European art (Büttner & Gottdang 2006).
Largely unnoticed by the non-German-speaking academic community a “new Warburg school” has emerged since the early 1990s. The driving force behind this “Warburg revival” is the German art historian Martin Warnke, who, together with his Hamburg collaborators, initiated the renovation of the still existing original Warburg-Haus, which hosted the famous research center established by Aby Warburg – the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW). Warnke, inspired by Warburg’s image collection, recalibrated the iconological method to the topic of politics in its widest sense, creating an approach of his own, labeled Politische Ikonographie – “political iconography” (Warnke 1994). Warnke’s work is based on his collection of approximately 500,000 image cards, which are archived and accessible for researchers in the reopened Warburg-Haus in Hamburg. Due to the lack of translation, the international impact of this “new Warburg school” has been limited. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the combination of visual interpretation as a method and political pictures as a topic appears to be experiencing a revival, reflecting the need for explanation of visual phenomena like the terrorist instrumentalization of visuals, the publication of torture images at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (Eisenman 2007), or the controversy about the publication of Muhammad cartoons (Müller & Özcan 2007).
Iconology has the potential to better understand and explain the meanings of contemporary mass-mediated visuals. Its holistic approach, intrinsic subjectivity, and cultural focus on western traditions are both its strengths and its shortcomings.
- Büttner, F., & Gottdang, A. (2006). Einführung in die Ikonographie: Wege zur Deutung von Bildinhalten [Introduction to iconography: Paths to interpreting the content of images].
- Munich: C. H. Beck. Diers, M. (1995). Warburg and the Warburgian tradition of cultural history. New German Critique, 22, 59 –73.
- Eisenman, S. F. (2007). The Abu Ghraib effect. London: Reaktion.
- Forster, K. W. (1999). Introduction. In A. Warburg, The renewal of pagan antiquity: Contributions to the cultural history of the European Renaissance (trans. D. Britt). Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, pp. 1–76.
- Mannheim, K. (1952). On the interpretation of “Weltanschauung.” In K. Mannheim, Essays on the sociology of knowledge. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 33 – 83. (Original work published 1923).
- Mitchell, W. J. T. (1987). Iconology: Image, text, ideology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Müller, M. G., & Özcan, E. (2007). The political iconography of Muhammad cartoons: Under- standing cultural conflict and political action. PS: Political Science and Politics, 40, 287–291.
- Panofsky, E. (1982). Iconography and iconology: An introduction to the study of Renaissance art. In E. Panofsky, Meaning in the visual arts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 26 –54. (Original work published 1955).
- Rampley, M. (2001). Iconology of the interval: Aby Warburg’s legacy. Word and Image, 17(4), 303 –324.
- Schmidt, P. (1993). Aby M. Warburg und die Ikonologie [Aby M. Warburg and iconology]. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
- Van Leeuwen, T. (2000). Semiotics and iconography. In T. Van Leeuwen & C. Jewitt (eds.), Handbook of visual analysis. London: Sage, pp. 92 –118.
- Warburg, A. (1999). The renewal of pagan antiquity: Contributions to the cultural history of the European Renaissance (trans. D. Britt). Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities. (Original work published 1932).
- Warnke, M. (1994). Politische Ikonographie. Hinweise auf eine sichtbare Politik [Political iconography: Hints at visible politics]. In C. Leggewie (ed.), Wozu Politikwissenschaft? Über das Neue in der Politik. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.