Demystifying Iconography #1 | What is iconography?

By Ria Sarkar

When you observe a painting or a sculpture as a layman, what do you see? Do you notice the artist’s technique and treatment of the medium; does your attention go to the colors? Or do you look for recognisable symbols or ‘icons’ that might help you to identify the context? Next time, you may observe a kind of mapping process that occurs when the mind starts recognising that which is familiar and relate-able over the unknown. Without realising, our brains start a step-by-step analysis spurred on by our natural interpretative reflex. Therefore, knowing how to identify the iconography of an artwork can help us to correctly decipher its meaning.

Britannica defines Iconography as the science of identification, description, classification, and interpretation of symbols, themes, and subject matter in the visual arts. For icons that we have been familiarised with since childhood, this process happens almost instantaneously. For example, a man wearing a Black Fedora hat and leather shoes is identified as Michael Jackson; an ascetic wearing tigerskin with a half moon crescent on his head is Lord Shiva; elves and hobbits form a part of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ iconography, and so on.

The term originates from a combination of the Greek word ‘eikon’ meaning image; and ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. In 7th century Greece, an icon was a picture of Christ on a panel in the Greek Church. This is why in History of Art, iconography is commonly understood as the study of those characteristics and descriptive qualities in religious imagery that helps us to identify various gods and goddesses, with their supporting figures and paraphernalia. The term is also used in many academic fields other than art history, such as semiotics and media studies, and is now commonly understood as the contextual backdrop of any phenomenon that is seen as an ‘icon’.

Let’s see how we can break down the iconography of an image of Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe and one of the three main gods in Hinduism. How do we know it is Lord Shiva? What identifies a particular deity as Shiva and distinguishes him from other gods? To find out, take a look at the illustration below.


Next week we’ll bring you more interactive illustrations of art historical icons from around the world and ‘demystify’ their individual iconographies. Stay tuned!



1 Response

  1. Saved as a favorite, I love your blog!

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