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Iconography!

Iconography!

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore the idea of iconography and how it is used as a tool in art historical analysis and interpretation.

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Tutorial

Exploring the idea of iconography and how it's used in historical analysis.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about iconography.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, you can begin.

Today's objectives-- here they are-- where the things you're going to learn today are listed below. By the end of the lesson, today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms. Identify examples of today's key terms.

The big idea for today is that the idea of iconography is used as a tool in art historical analysis. The key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is iconography, a type of visual symbolism. Christian iconography, for instance, might make references to the biblical story of the nativity.

Symbolism is when an object in a painting represents something else. In baroque paintings, a woman holding a mirror often symbolizes vanity. Metaphor is a figure speech in which a word or concept stands for or represents another concept. And allegorical figure, a form of visual symbolism in which a human figure represents an abstract concept, like justice.

So why do we care about iconography? Well, it's an important type of visual symbolism and it's been used throughout history. And it's meant to be seen by a large number or often, meant to be seen by a large number of people.

Symbolism is something that would have been familiar to the people that were viewing it. And it's an important type of visual symbolism, especially for the illiterate. So iconography is really a way of depicting important symbolic references, as well as to tell a story, which is what I'm representing in these two images that I'll show you.

And I'll start with the first one, which is a Hindu image depicting the Hindu god, Vishnu, who is one of the principal deities of the Hindu faith. Vishnu is known for his manifestation in the number of physical forms, which are called avatars. And this particular manifestations is of a fish.

Now this story is of how Vishnu saved several sages or wise men, as well as samples of plants and animals from a great flood. So it's a very similar story to the Christian story of Noah and Noah's Ark. Although the story may be foreign to many Westerners, this is a symbolism in a story that would have been well known by its Hindu observers.

Second image is of a Fresco painted by the artist, Fra Angelico. And it depicts the important Christian narrative of the Annunciation where the angel, Gabriel, brings news to the Virgin Mary that she is chosen to be the mother of God's son on Earth, Jesus Christ, which would be quite the news if you weren't expecting it.

Third image is another Fresco by the Italian painter, Giotto, of another important Christian narrative that is of the nativity or the birth of Jesus Christ. The fourth image of Adam and Eve is a good example of important Christian symbolism, such as the snake or serpent, which symbolized Satan aka the devil. And actually, the apple itself, which often was used to represent the fall of man where the first humans were evicted from the Garden of Eden for disobeying God, which was the first sin.

Now this next image is titled The Arnolfini Wedding. And it's by the Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck. Now on first glance, it may not seem to be an example of iconography. But I bring this up to illustrate the point that iconographic interpretations of works of art it isn't necessarily an exact science in that there are disputes among historians as to what a particular work of art is trying to symbolize. Particularly, if there are no supporting documents or if the symbolism is obscure, like in this example here.

Now it is believed among some scholars to be a form of iconography under the guise of a wealthy merchant's wedding portrait. One of the most conspicuous of clues is how the wife is depicted in a similar manner to that of the Virgin Mary in many scenes of the Annunciation. And although whether this was the intention of van Eyck is subject to debate, which, again, brings me back to the point that without definitive documentation, symbolism is open to interpretation, which undoubtedly leads to conflicts of opinion.

And finally, allegorical figures. And why do we care? Well, allegory is a form of visual symbolism. And how do you know if what you're seeing or how can you recognize allegorical figures?

Well, first of all, allegorical figures are visual metaphors. They stand for something. And they often represent abstract concepts. Things like justice, victory, or in this case, the Statue of Liberty is representing the abstract concept of Liberty. It's liberty personified or it's a person representing liberty.

And again, this idea of personification where a person is representing an idea or a concept. So we have the Statue of Liberty here, which is an allegorical figure. And this is an example of-- this is the winged God of victory in Nike, who represents the abstract concept of victory even though she is headless here.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you identify examples of today's key terms?

And one more time, the big idea is that the idea of iconography is used as a tool in art historical analysis. Well, that's it. Thank you very much for joining me. I'll see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Iconography

    A type of visual symbolism. Christian iconography for instance, might make references to the biblical story of the nativity.

  • Symbolism

    When an object in a painting represents something else. In Baroque paintings, a woman holding a mirror often symbolizes vanity.

  • Metaphor

    A figure of speech in which a word or concept stands for or represents another concept.

  • Allegorical figure

    A form of visual symbolism in which a human figure represents an abstract concept, like justice.