Monday 24 May 2010


The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes iconology as the ‘study of icons; symbolism. Iconology is the study of art history concerning icons (Christianity, Orthodox Church, etc) and the symbolic representation or symbolism of icons. Billingtons (2005) state that Iconology is the study of the meaning contained within the symbols in art – Iconology examines the symbol on more than its face value. Howells explains that iconology is a method to help us to study the subject-matter of works of art (Howells, 2003:24). Mitchell believes iconology to be the study of the ‘logos’ (the words, ideas, discourse, or ‘science’) of ‘icons’ (images, pictures, or likenesses) (Mitchell, 1986:1). He further explains that Iconology is not just the science of icons, but the also the political psychology of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry (Mitchell, 1986:3)

Biddingtons (2005) state that incology is the study of the meanings of symbols depicted in a work of art. These symbols derive from a readily recognisable, common currency of cultural or religious experience. For instance, a cross is familiar shorthand for Christianity.

Mitchell states that iconology is a study of ‘what to say about images’, concerned with the description and interpretation of visual art; and is also a study of ‘what images say’ – the ways in which they seem to speak for themselves by persuading, telling stories, or describing. (Mitchell, 1986:1-2)

Woodrow (1999) explains that iconography’s original meaning as the study of icons, panel pictures of Christ or a Saint, but by the seventeenth century, iconography was used in a secular context as a noun to describe a collection of portraits. He adds that the term iconography refers to the description and classification of images, but, due to the influence of Erwin Panofsky, there is a distinction between the two terms with iconology referring specifically to the interpretation of images.

Mitchell explains that the critical study of the icon begins with the idea that human beings are created ‘in the image and likeness’ of their creator and culminates, rather less grandly, in the modern science of ‘image making’ in advertising and propaganda. (Mitchell, 1986:2)

Why all this Symbolism?


Bilingtons (2005) explain that using symbols in art allows the artist to pack a lot of information in a small space and it also gives the artist the flexibility to allude to some piece of personal or shared myth in a minor way, something that may be meaningful to the artist.

For example, Billingtons (2005) explain that Diego Rivera chose the calla lily as the symbol for Frieda Kahlo and used it extensively in his work. Although Frieda’s face or figure is missing, here presence is still acknowledged.

Christian Iconography

Many Christian saints can be recognised by the symbols (or attributes) that accompany them:

clip_image001[7]We know that a cross is familiar shorthand for Christianity (Iconography), but iconology goes further than that. Billingtons (2005) state that Caravaggio painted several martyred saints, but the figure of St Peter is crucified upside-down. This is because he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ, so in this painting, the cross refers not only to Christianity, but to humility. Before we can understand this, however, we need to know the religious background of the scene.

Erwin Panofsky’s Iconology

When we look at a painting, we usually see its content and can figure out quickly was it is supposed to be. But Howells explains that we need a structured way of looking at paintings to help us understand them at different levels and also enable us to apply it to paintings that we have not yet seen. (Howells, 2003:24).

Howells explains that Erwin Panofsky devised a three-point system which could be applied to works of art, which have three levels of meaning. (Howells, 2003:24). Here is an example of how it can be applied:

A man walks down a street raising his hat in greeting.

Level 1

A man has briefly lifted his hat from his head and then replaced it.

It is a friendly gesture

We understand what has happened factually and expressionally from our everyday experience

Level 2

It is a form of communication

It is a sign of politeness

To know this, we have to understand what is communicated.

Someone from a different culture would understand the first level, but not the second level

Level 3

We can tell something of the man’s personality along with his national, social, educational and cultural background from the fact that he chose to lift his hat in greeting.







I Primary/Natural

Artistic motifs

Pre-iconographical description

Practical experience – familiarity with objects and events

II Secondary/


Images, stories and allegories

Iconographical analysis

Knowledge of literary sources – familiarity with specific themes and concepts

III Intrinsic

Symbolic values

Iconological interpretation

Synthetic intuition – familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind

The Primary Level/Natural Level

Woodrow (1999) explains that this is simple identification through familiarity. Howells explains that we do not need any inside cultural, conventional or art historical knowledge and only need to bring our ‘practical experience’ of daily life into play. (Howells, 2003:25) Basically – what you see is what you get.

The Secondary Level/Conventional Level

Woodrow (1999) explains that this is the domain of iconography – the linking of artistic motifs with themes, concepts and conventional meaning. Howells explains that we have to know the conventions in use in order to understand a painting at this second, deeper level of meaning. For example, we can now tell the difference between a casual meal out and ‘The Last Supper’, because we have brought our existing literary, artistic and cultural knowledge into play. (Howells, 2003:25)

The Third Level/Intrinsic Level

Woodrow (1999) explains that this interpretation is iconological. It is the deepest level and the ‘ultimate goal’ of iconology.


Here, as Howells explains, is revealed the underlying ‘basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion – unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work’. (Howells, 2003:25)

So, as Howells points out, the Arnolfini portrait could tell us a great deal about attitudes towards marriage, religion, wealth and domesticity in fifteenth-century Flanders as a whole, rather than just being a picture of the Anolfini bedroom in particular. (Howells, 2003:25)

Howells stresses that this level, unlike levels one and two, this is an unconscious process and that the artist probably did not intend to encapsulate so many cultural attitudes and assumptions in his painting. However, they are still there. (Howells, 2003:25-26). Howells adds that like so many things in life, we often communicate far more than we deliberately intend. (Howells, 2003:26)

Case Study – The Beatles’ Abbey Road – Iain MacMillan


Primary Level – Natural Level

Here, we can see a leafy, urban street on a sunny summer’s day. Four men, each aged between about 20 and 30, are crossing the road in single file, from left to right. Can we include a zebra crossing at this level? As zebra crossings, could come under the heading of ‘practical experience’, we can probably do so. Now for the expressional evidence. From the way the men crossing the street we can discern a relaxed – if somewhat self-aware – attitude both to anyone who might be watching and to the task of actually crossing the road. (Howells, 2003:27)

Secondary Level – Conventional Level

Now we begin our iconological investigation.

When we look closely at the men crossing the road, we can bring our prior knowledge to bear to identify them as The Beatles. If we were to have seen them individually, we may not have been able to have recognized them as that group of individuals known collectively as The Beatles. If there had been three or five of them, the identification would have been much more difficult – or indeed impossible – because of our prior knowledge that there were in fact four Beatles. Once we have established them at The Beatles, we can then begin to identify the individual members of the group much more easily. Again, using our prior knowledge, we can identify the first (in order of crossing) as John Lennon, the second as Ringo Starr, the third as Paul McCartney and the fourth as George Harrison. We can do this even though they are not carrying their instruments […] If we know something more of the group, we can even recognised that this is an image of them towards the end of their collective career. They have long and (in two cases) facial hair. They are also dressed individually. We know from other representations of The Beatles that, at the start of their fame, they had all comparatively short hair, were clean-shaven and dressed identically. (Howells, 2003:27) We know this not (unless we are very fortunate!) from practical experience, but from knowledge of other photographs, posters and artwork. If we really know our Beatles, we will recognize the location as the actual Abbey Road in north London, the home of the EMI studios in which The Beatles were recording this album at the time of the shoot. (Howells, 2003:28)

Our knowledge of the disguised symbolism of the Renaissance art studied by Panofsky may inspire us to look even more closely at the Abbey Road cover, however. If we look carefully at Paul McCartney, we notice he has his right foot forward, where all the others are in synchronized step, leading with the left. Second, McCartney is wearing neither shoes or socks. What does this mean? McCartney is ‘out of step’ with the rest, both literally and figuratively. There is something markedly different about him. And what of the bare feet? Is he walking on holy or consecrated ground? And is walking barefoot also an old Sicilian sign of mourning? Someone must have died. Could it have been Pal McCartney himself? We need more visual evidence. Let us look at the cover again. When a group of friends crosses the road, they normally do it as a group, all at once. What we have here is much more of a procession. It is in single file, equally spaced and even (with the notable exception of McCartney) in coordinated step. Could this be a funeral procession? Leading the procession we have the priest (John Lennon) dressed completely in white. He is followed by the sober-suited pallbearer or funeral director (Ringo Starr). Bringing up the rear, in his working denims and sneakers is the grave-digger (George Harrison). That leaves only Paul McCartney as the corpse. (Howells, 2003:28)

There are further clues. McCartney is cupping a cigarette in his right hand. It is widely known, however, that Beatle Paul is left-handed. Could this therefore be a telltale sign that this is not the real Paul McCartney? Look now at the Volkswagen Beetle. Surely the pun could not be unintentional. Look closely at the last line of the registration plate: ’28 IF’. The Beatle in question, then, would have been aged 28 if he were alive. This was not the case, however. A detailed, secondary or conventional study of the iconology of The Beatles’ Abbey Road cover reveals to us that Paul is dead. (Howells, 2003:28)

This is all, of course, a load of nonsense. Paul McCartney is not dead. The image finally selected for the cover of Abbey Road was one of six shots hastily taken by photographer Iain MacMillan from a stepladder set up in the middle of the busy street with the help of a policeman, who temporarily held up the traffic. Study of the other five shots reveals that Paul is wearing shoes in two of them. As the shoot wore on, it is reported, he took them off because they were getting uncomfortable. The shot finally featured on the cover is number five of six. (Howells, 2003:28)

What we have done here is to fall into the trap of reading text from 1969 as if it were a painting from medieval Europe. In the fifteenth and sixteenths centuries, symbolism, religion and painting were all very much wrapped up with each other. Difficult theological concepts were often explained visually (especially to the illiterate) and this, inevitably, involved the use of symbolism and visual metaphor. (Howells, 2003:28)

On the face of it, then, Panofsky’s iconological system is inappropriate for use with contemporary visual arts. (Howells, 2003:29)

First, over-interpretation can be a menace with medieval painting too. Every apple, dog, flower or bare foot does not have to have a symbolic meaning. It could just be an apple, a dog, a flower, a foot. The lesson, then, is to be aware of over-interpretation in general. (Howells, 2003:29)

Third Level

What, in other words, does it unconsciously tell us about the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) of Britain in the late 1960s? (Howells, 2003:29)

It must have been a very casual era. The musicians here are not the clean-cut, tuxedo-wearing artistes of previous times. McCartney doesn’t even have his shoes. There is something of an arrogance about them too: none of them engaged the camera directly, and there is no attempt at a winning smile for the viewer. The accent is on ’cool’ rather than on personality. We notice (picking up on something we spotted earlier) that the band members are very differently dressed. The accent is on individuality rather than on conformity. It is not simply that The Beatles as a group do not wish to conform to society as a whole (they stated that with their original ‘Beatle cuts’ which were considered an outrage in 1963), but more importantly that they no longer wish conformity or cohesion within the band. Clearly, by the end of the decade, individual and personal expression were all. (Howells, 2003:29)

There is something much more important here, however, and this leads us to a crucial general as well as specific point: We should always be aware of what is not shown in a visual text as well as what is simply shown. Often, that which is omitted (intentionally or otherwise) is actually much more revealing. What is missing from The Beatles’ Abbey Road cover? Yes, it’s extraordinary. What is missing here is the first thing we would normally expect to see on the cover a record: the name of the band. Here, however, we have the cover to a Beatles album that says nothing about ‘The Beatles.’ Why? Intrinsically, we can conclude that The Beatles were so famous in1969 that they were instantly recognizable to everybody that printing the name of the band along with the picture was, therefore, superfluous. This tells us a great deal not only about The Beatles, but also (and more importantly) about the importance of the popular musician in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century culture. (Howells, 2003:29)

The whole ‘Paul is dead’ phenomenon is actually only a part of a far greater cultural obsession with the cult of the dead rock star. We have only to think of Jim Morrison, Jimmy Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Elvis Presley […] to realize that death and rock celebrity seem so often to go hand in hand. Dying young, indeed, seems to give the charismatic performer some kind of eternal life. (Howells, 2003:29)

[…] iconography need not be limited to the art of centuries past. (Howells, 2003:30)

In the Abbey Road cover, we have four people so instantly recognizable to people of our time that they do not need signs or labels to identify or distinguish them. Much the same can be said of the ‘celebrities’ of Renaissance painting. Old and New Testament characters were all frequently represented and instantly recognized (Howells, 2003:30) Could it be, then, that we today have much more in common than we had suspected with the people of centuries ago? Is it simply that we have found new idols to worship? (Howells, 2003:30)

[…] objects might be included in a photograph as a result of happenstance rather than the conscious intent of the photographer. (Howells, 2003:191)

Theoretical approaches to photography are complicated by the fact that the photographic image is both reality and representation at the same time. (Howells, 2003:167)

Iconology, for example, is certainly relevant at the primary level, as the vast majority of photographs have subject-matter that can be recognized from experience. (Howells, 2003:167)

Iconology, for example, is certainly relevant at the primary level, as the vast majority of photographs have subject-matter that can be recognized from experience. (Howells, 2003:167)

The initial stages of the secondary level can be useful, too, especially when subject-matter depends on prior, cultural knowledge for its identification. (Howells, 2003:167)

We get into potential trouble, though, with ‘disguised symbolism’. (Howells, 2003:167)

In fine art, everything that is shown has been deliberately included by the artist. We may dispute that whether it was intended to be symbolic, but we have to agree that nothing ‘puts itself’ onto the canvas automatically. (Howells, 2003:167)

With photography, the dangers of iconological over-interpretation are even greater than they are with painting, because a photograph’s content is often the result of circumstance rather than the artist’s premeditated intent: an apple or a Volkswagen might appear in a photograph simply because it happened to be there in reality. (Howells, 2003:167)

It seems to be extensively believed by photographers that meanings are to be found in the world much in the way that rabbits are found on downs, and that all that is required is the talent to spot them and the skill to shoot them … However, the naturalness of the world ostensibly open before the camera is a deceit. Objects present to the camera are already in use in the production of meanings, and photography has no choice but to operate upon such meanings. Victor Burgin (Kelly, 1996:27)

The third intrinsic level of iconology is more helpful to photography because it acknowledges that this third level is often beyond the conscious intent of the artist. (Howells, 2003:167)

As such, a photograph can be indicative of a wider, cultural way of seeing the world than the photographer had imagined. (Howells, 2003:167)

It is no coincidence that the handy little program-related images we see on our computer screen are called ‘icons’. They are partly interpretable by something, and they are frequently recognizable across different programme by different manufacturers. (Howells, 2003:243)