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The Concise Encyclopedia of Communication by Wolfgang Donsbach

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Iconography

Marion G. Müller

Jacobs University Bremen

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 its modern connotation it was framed by the German art historian Aby M. Warburg (1866–1929) at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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 (→ Content Analysis, Qualitative). In its Warburgian sense, iconography/iconology is an interdisciplinary comparative method, focused on the ‘visual interval,’ both temporal and spatial.

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 to unravel the “intrinsic meaning or content constituting the world of ‘symbolical’ values” (Panofsky 1982[1955], 40; → Semiotics). Warburg himself enlarged the scope of art history by including “any visual ...

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