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  Iconography (Greek, ‘writing about images’) is the study of subject matter in art. The iconographer employs knowledge of symbolic imagery to interpret works of art. The art historian Erwin Panofsky was a pioneer of iconographical studies and is now their leading exponent. In his own words, iconography is ‘that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form’. For example, a painting in which a woman is placed next to a spiked wheel is a representation of St Catherine, martyred on such a wheel and whose attribute it is. This is a simple example; usually the study of iconography is far more complicated, requiring an extensive knowledge of the related culture and intellectual climate before analysis can take place. A classic example is Panofsky\'s analysis of van Eyck\'s The Marriage of Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) in his book Early Netherlandish Painting.

Panofsky established an important distinction between iconography and iconology. In Studies in Iconology (1939) he defined ‘iconography’ as the study of subject matter, and ‘iconology’ as the study of meaning. His definitive example illustrating this difference is that of the man who raises his hat as a polite gesture. While the action is straightforward (taking off a hat) its meaning derives from the practice of medieval knights removing their helmets to express peaceful intent. As Panofsky states: ‘To understand [the] significance of the gentleman\'s actions I must not only be familiar with the practical world of objects and events, but also with the more-than-practical world of customs and cultural traditions peculiar to a certain civilization.’ Thus the action has two meanings, primary or apparent, and secondary or conventional. This latter quality points toward hidden meaning in a work of art.

Other eminent exponents of an iconographic approach include Emile Mile, Aby Warburg and Randolph Wittkower. MG PD

Further reading W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology.



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