Monday, 24 May 2010

Soviet Iconography

Iconography was also used in Soviet Russia to symbolise strength and power under communism.
In spite of the fact that photography was the revolutionary medium of the nineteenth century, invented during the years when Marx produced his major writing, he never mentions it except as another kind of ‘industry’. (Mitchell, 1986 :179)
The assumption that photography is an inherently realistic medium is very congenial with Marx’s own expressed preference for realism in literature and painting (Mitchell, 1986 :179)
And in the visual arts, Engels suggests that the leaders of the revolution should not be glorified but should
“Be finally depicted in strong Rembrandtian colors, in all their living qualities. Hitherto these people have never been pictured in their real form; they have been presented as official personalities, wearing buskins and with aureoles around their heads. In these apotheoses of Raphaelite beauty all pictorial truth is lost” (Mitchell, 1986 :179)
“Rembrandtian” was, as it happens, one of the terms applied to the daguerreotype; Samuel Morse called the new images “Rembrandt perfected” in 1939. (Mitchell, 1986 :179-180)
The ‘realism’ celebrated here is not, however, an optical, scientific reconstruction of vision – Vermeer would have been the right analogy for that sort of realism. And it is not ‘historical’ in the sense of traditional history painting (‘apotheoses of Raphaelite beauty’), but an image of real history, of flesh-and-blood creatures in their material circumstances. This image replaces the traditional ‘aureole’ around the figure with a new sort of aura – the ‘living qualities’ of the subject (Mitchell, 1986 :180)
Iconography of the Worker
The creation of a compelling visual language proved to be particularly critical in the campaign to establish the ‘working class’ as the heroic collectivity of the Bolshevik revolution and of world history more generally (Bonnell, 1997:22)
The Bolsheviks faced the task not only of establishing the heroic position and role of the worker but also of bringing an image of the new worker-heroes to the population at large. Verbal propaganda, however ubiquitous, could not achieve this objective (Bonnell, 1997:22)
Given the diverse cultural background of the population, they drew on a variety of sources: religious and folk art, classical mythology, Russian painting, and the imagery of Western European labor and revlolutionary movements (Bonnell, 1997:23)
Before long, a new iconography had arisen in Soviet Russia, with its own distinctive lexicon and syntax (Bonnell, 1997:23)
As in the religious art of the Orthodox tradition, a set of standardized image was created, depicting worker-heroes (saints) and class enemies (the devil and his accomplices) (Bonnell, 1997:23)
The two aspects of the worker image – contemplation and action – also characterized the imagery of Hercules in the French Revolution (Bonnell, 1997:27)
Pride, dignity and strength
The 1927 poster, ‘Oktiabr’ na severnom Kavkaze’ (October in the Northen Caucasus)
Here the traditional worker carries a red flag with the inscription: “With the Leninist party for the victory of the worldwide October Revolution, 1917-1927”. Photographs of six leading Bolsheviks (Lenin and party heroes of the Caucasus) are in the center of the frame. In this poaster and in many others of the late 1920s, the blacksmith acquired a far narrower focus than ever before. (Bonnell, 1997:27)

Anon (1927) Oktiabr’ na severnom Kavkaze (October in the Northern Caucasus.)
The worker, himself, needed no other figure to establish his position in the hierarchy of heroes. (Bonnell, 1997:28)
Only the Red Army soldier, a depicted during the Civil War, occupied a syntactic position similar to that of the worker (Bonnell, 1997:28)
Aleksandr Mateev’s famous monumental sculpture completed in 1927, Ostiabr’skaia revoliuttsiia (October Revolution), illustrates the visual language that was used to depict heroic figures. The sculpture shows three nearly naked men. The Red Army soldier, identified by his Budennyi hat, is kneeling, the worker stands in the center, resting his arm on his hammer; the bearded peasant sits, his left hand outstretched. The commanding presence of the worker in this composition leaves no doubt about the hegemonic status of the proletariat. The constellation of figures and their hierarchical arrangement betoken a particular worldview – a view propagated by te Bolshevik party and enshrined in its official ideology (Bonnell, 1997:28)
Mateev, Alekdandr (1927) Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia (October Revolution). Wikimedia Commons: Alexandr Terentyevich Matveev (2010):
The worker-icon, initially representing the broad category of collective heroes of the revolution and later the more select group of Bolshevik worker-heroes, was rooted in a symbolic tradition of representation (Bonnell, 1997:38)
During the 1930s, the imagery of the worker in political propaganda had a different purpose. Now the image of the worker functioned as a model, an ideal type (Bonnell, 1997:38)
The artist’s task marked a fundamental shift from a symbolic representation of the past and present to a new mode of visual representation which depicted the present not as it actually was but as it should become (Bonnell, 1997:38)
In the Soviet lexicon, the term tipazh implied a correct rendering of a particularly social category (Bonnell, 1997:38)
The correct tipazh required that the image of the worker convey a certain demeanor and expression (Bonnell, 1997:39)
One poster critic wrote in 1933, the depiction of the worker should include a ‘healthy, lively, intelligent, intellectual face. He is the prototype of the new man, a combination of physical strength, energy, fortitude and intelligence (Bonnell, 1997:39)

1930s Photomontage
Photomontage marked a sharp departure from the previous style of representing the worker (Bonnell, 1997:39)
Photographs, unlike drawings and paintings, projected an aura of objectivity and were based on the principle of realistic as opposed to symbolic representation (Bonnell, 1997:39-40)
The power of the image derived from its seemingly authentic representation of the real world, its verisimilitude (Bonnell, 1997:40)
Relying on actual photographs, political artists developed a new approach to the problem of representing workers in the Stalinist era. (Bonnell, 1997:40)
Instead of subsuming all workers into a single image of the blacksmith or creating vague and abstract images of a multiplicity of identical worker-silhouettes, they began to portray workers as miners, construction workers, metalworkers, textile workers, and so on (Bonnell, 1997:40)
There was no longer a single prototype of the worker (Bonnell, 1997:40)
By 1920, Bolshevik artists had generated distinctive images that incorporated elements from various traditions but were also unmistakably expressive of the Bolshevik ethos (Bonnell, 1997:7)
These were the new icons – standardized images that depicted heroes (saints) and enemies (the devil and his accomplices) according to a fixed pattern (the so-called podlinnik in church art) (Bonnell, 1997:7)
[The icons of soviet political art] were part of a system of signs imposed by the authorities in an effort to transform mass consciousness (Bonnell, 1997:7-8)
Like other ‘invented traditions’, these iconographic images were consistent and incessantly repeated, and they resonated strongly with mythologies from the Russian past (Bonnell, 1997:8)
I begin by discussing the icon of the worker, a pervasive image of the very core of Bolshevik rhetoric (Bonnell, 1997:8)
The worker-icon provides a versatile symbol of changing official conceptions of the proletarian basis of political power (Bonnell, 1997:8)
It also conveys important ideas about the location of the sacred in Soviet society, since the proletariat was designated the equivalent of the chosen class in Bolshevik ideology and possessed superhuman powers capable of transforming nature in accordance with the ‘laws’ of Marxism-Leninism (Bonnell, 1997:8)
Through the creation and re-creation of the worker-icon, the Bolsheviks sought to assert their continuity with the past and their vision of the future (Bonnell, 1997:8)
From 1919 to 1930, a single iconographic image of the worker-blacksmith predominated in Bolshevik visual propaganda. After 1930, however, the blacksmith is seldom encountered in political art. A new image of the worker takes its place (Bonnell, 1997:8)
The transformation of the worker-icon in the 1930s coincides with the general decline in the representation of workers in political art and the shift of the sacred centre to a new locus (Bonnell, 1997:8)
The term ‘iconography’ is, of course, borrowed from art history, where it has been applied by such scholars as Erwin Panofsky (Bonnell, 1997:19)
Nearly everyone who lived in Russia after 1917 had some familiarity with stock images of the male worker, the great leaders, the peasant woman, the capitalist, and others (Bonnell, 1997:19)
Images mean nothing by themselves, taken in isolation from their historical context. They acquire meaning only when seen with a ‘period eye’, to use Baxandall’s phrase (Bonnell, 1997:19)
The most important image in the visual lexicon, which remained part of the standard iconography until 1930, was that of the proud worker who represented a victorious proletariat (Bonnell, 1997:74)
Early Soviet Iconography – The Blacksmith
Although the party had no single visual image of the worker when it took power, a year later the representation of ‘the worker’ had acquired a definite form. He was almost invariably depicted as a kuznets, or blacksmith (Bonnell, 1997:23)
Aleksandr Apsit’s poster ‘God proletarsko diktatuury oktiabr’ 1917-octiabr’ 1918’ (Year of the Proletarian Dictatorship, October 1917-October 1918), produced for the first anniversary of the October Revolution, can be considered the first major statement of a new images in Bolshevik iconography (Bonnell, 1997:23)
clip_image001 Apsit, Aleksandr (1918) God proletarskoi diktatury oktiabr’ 1917-octiabr’ 1918 (Year of the Proletarian Dictatorship, October 1917-October 1918).
Description of Poster
A long, winding demonstration of people with red flags is visible, with a factory and the stylised rays of a rising sun in the background. The debris of the old order (imperial shield, crown, double-headed eagle, chains) are strewn across the foreground. The worker on the left has a mustache and wears a leather apron and boots. His right hand rests on the handle of his hammer, and he has a rifle on his back. Opposite him stands the male peasant, wearing a Russian shirt and bast shoes and holding a scythe in his right hand and a red banner in his left. Each man has a red ribbon hanging above them. The man who created this poster, Apsit, was born in Latvia, the son of a blacksmith. One of the earliest and most distinguished poster artists of the Civil War years, Apsit helped to create an image of the blacksmith that soon acquired archetypal status in Bolshevik visual propaganda (Bonnell, 1997:26)
The blacksmith’s distinctive markers were his hammer (molot), a leather apron, and sometimes an anvil. Typically, he had a mustache (a beard was associated with the male peasant), a Russian shirt, and boots (peasants wore bast shoes). Sometimes, he was presented as bare to the waist, but more often he wore a shirt. He was neither youthful nor particularly old; generally, he had the appearance of a mature and experienced worker (Bonnell, 1997:23)
The exceptional significance and role of the blacksmith were reinforced by Slavic folklore, which contains many references to the blacksmith, who was thought to possess concealed sacred abilities. Wedding songs spoke of the blacksmith as hammering out the wedding crown, the ring, the wedding itself. (Bonnell, 1997:30)
The blacksmith had godlike features and could perform heroic feats (Bonnell, 1997:30)
The earliest examples of this image derive from ancient Greece and Rome, where the Greek god Hephaestus (Roman: Vulcan) appeared with hammer in hand (Bonnell, 1997:30)
In the course of 1919, the image of the male blacksmith began to function as a virtual icon in the Bolshevik visual propaganda, confirming to a fixed pattern (Bonnell, 1997:23-24)
The blacksmith appeared in posters and holiday displays, on stamps and official seals, even on pottery and fabric (Bonnell, 1997:24)
Images of the blacksmith, in particular, served as a symbol for all types of workers associated with the new age of manufacturing (Bonnell, 1997:31-32)
No other visual symbol – except for the emblems of the red star and the hammer and sickle, introduced in the spring of 1918 – was as widely disseminated in Bolshevik Russia or as closely associated with the new regime. The image remained central until 1930, and then was abandoned (Bonnell, 1997:24)
The well-known May Day poster by Nikolai Kochergin, ‘I-oe maia 1920 goda’ (May 1 1920), […] shows three figures in profile stride confidently over the debris of the old regime (crown, insignia, etc). A male worker with a hammer over his shoulder is flanked on one side by a bearded male peasant with a scythe and on the other (in the foreground) by a buxom peasant woman (Bonnell, 1997:81)
She wear a kerchief, a Russian blouse, and a skirt with an apron and carries a sickle. The poster is a classic example of early Boshevik iconography (Bonnell, 1997:81)
clip_image002[5] Kochergin, Nikolai (1920) 1-oe maia 1920 goda (May 1 1920).


Visual imagery of men and women […] conveys important messages about relations of domination and subordination, both in the realm of social interaction and in the broader sphere of political life (Bonnell, 1997:8)
The depiction of gender has particular significance in periods when authority relations are in flux, such as the Civil War years and the 1930s (Bonnell, 1997:8)
Civil War posters depicted a predominantly male world. Women were often represented allegorically until 1920, when images of the woman worker and the peasant woman first become established (Bonnell, 1997:8)
These new, more realistic female images were usually depicted in a subordinate relationship to male workers and peasants, thereby conveying the idea that women had only a weak claim to membership in the pantheon of heroes (Bonnell, 1997:8-9)
[Women] appear very prominently in connection with the campaign for the collectivisation of agriculture beginning in 1930 (Bonnell, 1997:9)
[…] in contrast to the emphasis on female imagery in the iconography of the French Revolution or nineteeth-century labor movements in England and France (the countries from which [Eric Hobsbawm’s] major examples are drawn), socialist iconography gradually excluded female images (Bonnell, 1997:18)
[…] from 1930 onward, Soviet imagery underwent a major transformation, bringing female pesants into prominence, while downgrading the importance of the worker (male and female) (Bonnell, 1997:18)
The imagery of the worker in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth century socialist iconography is overwhelmingly male, and Soviet visual propaganda conformed to this pattern (Bonnell, 1997:23)
Since women virtually never served as blacksmiths’ helpers, the imagery can only be interpreted allegorically (Bonnell, 1997:23)
The female worker derived heroic status from her association with the male worker. She holds the hot metal on the anvil=altar while he fashions it into a new object =world. Her representation as his helper reinforces the theme of male leadership, or as we now put it, male domination in the ranks of the proletariat (Bonnell, 1997:23)
Images of Lenin appear early in political posters, increasing in frequency and prominence after his death in 1924 (Bonnell, 1997:9)
It is not until the early 1930s that representations of political leaders – particularly Stalin – are centrally featured (Bonnell, 1997:9)
Stalin, depicted as a living god, moves to center stage in visual propaganda, displacing both his predecessor Lenin and the proletariat as the core elements in Bolshevik mythology (Bonnell, 1997:9)
In contrast to other iconographic images […], the representation of enemies shows a good deal of continuity between 1917 and 1953, due to the consistent application of standard styles of satire and caricature (Bonnell, 1997:9)
The second political poster issued by the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1918 attempted to give precise coordinates for three key figures in Bolshevik demonology. This poster, created by an anonymous artist and entitled ‘Tsar, pop I kulak’ (Tsar, Priest, and Kulak) was issued in many different versions designed for particular national and ethnic populations (Bonnell, 1997:188)
The lengthy text that accompanies the rather primitive drawing exhorts ‘comrade peasants! The peasant poor’ to take heed of kulaks and priests who were uniting against the soviets and in support of the tsar because they feared poor peasants (Bonnell, 1997:188)
From the point of view of iconography, the poster provides a remarkable illustration of iconographical experimentation in representing two social groups designated as leading ‘enemies’ of the revolution: the kulak and the priest. (Bonnell, 1997:188)
clip_image002[7] Anon (1918) Tsar’, pop I kulak (Tsar, priest and Kulak). Smith College Museum of Art: Exhibitions: Godless Communists: Soviet Antireligious Propaganda (2010): godlesscommunists/tsar_priest_kulak.htm
Whereas the image of the tsar remains constant in various versions, the representation of the priest and the kulak shifts, depending on the subpopulation that is addressed (Bonnell, 1997:188)
The iconography used to represent enemies and those who vanquish them often reverts back to earlier patterns, with a giant worker or a giant arm and fist crushing miniscule enemies (Bonnell, 1997:260)
Russian Orthodox Church and Religious Iconography
In old regime Russia, allegorical images – both male and female – played a major part in the pageantry and symbolic system of both the autocracy and the Church (Bonnell, 1997:70)
The most central image, which provided a ‘cultural frame’ for organizing political narratives under the old regime, was that of St George. The legend of St George was depicted in religious iconography, folk art, and the political art of the tsarist government. During the First World War, the tstarist government had repeatedly used the image of St George in its political propaganda (Bonnell, 1997:70)
clip_image001[6] Anon (14th Century), Russian Icon: St George and the Dragon. Olga’s Gallery: Icons (2010):
In the system of representation in religious icons, the Mother of God occupied a central place. (Bonnell, 1997:66)
[…] N Grzelishvili’s Comrade Stalin in His Early Years, with the young Stalin expounding his ideas to an admiring crowd, may have reminded viewers of religious icons showing the life of Christ in its various phases. (Bonnell, 1997:167-168)
The association between Stalin and Christ was scarcely a novelty in the late 1930s. ‘Icons’ of Stalin had become a familiar part of public life. (Bonnell, 1997:168)
Certain symbolic forms probably recalled religious icons. (Bonnell, 1997:146)
[…] Soviet artists borrowed a number of key features from icons [from the Russian Orthodox Church] and used them to sacralize the new worker-hero (Bonnell, 1997:32)
Color symbolism in political posters also resonated with religious art. (Bonnell, 1997:32)
The color red served in religious icons to identify the sacred (black was the color of evil). (Bonnell, 1997:32)
To be sure, the color red also had positive connotations in Western European socialist art. But the great majority of Russian spectators were probably more familiar with the icon, which graced many huts and urban households, than with European art. (Bonnell, 1997:32)
The extensive use of the color red, the distorted perspective (Lenin is far larger than the sun, the globe, and the worker and peasant, just as Christ was sometimes flanked by two apostles), and the circular frame that surrounds Lenin (Christ was often situated in an oval frame) must have been familiar to Russians accustomed to the conventions of religious icons (Bonnell, 1997:146)
Take the case of religious icons, undoubtedly the most familiar visual medium before 1917. Icons used certain key devices, such as color symbolism, to convey meaning (Bonnell, 1997:13)
People accustomed to viewing icons knew that red was a holy color, used in connection with figures worthy of veneration (Bonnell, 1997:13)
When Bolshevik artists used red to represent workers, they were invoking a long-standing convention in color symbolism familiar to most Russians (Bonnell, 1997:13)
These visual analogies were reinforced by written and verbal comments of contemporaries who used religious terminology to describe Lenin, a trend that began in the aftermath of the Kaplan assassination attempt. (Bonnell, 1997:146)
Although the architects of the emerging cult of Lenin borrowed extensively from the Russian Orthodox Church in crafting verbal and visual symbols for the vozhd’, they were careful to produce images that appeared discontinuous with tsarist iconography. (Bonnell, 1997:146)
clip_image002[9] Sokolov, A (1922) Pust’ gospodstvuiushchie klassy sodrogaiutsia pered kommunisticheskoi revoliutsiei (Let the Ruling Classes Shudder before the Communist Revolution). Rene Wanner’s Poster Page: Web Poster Exhibition: Déjà vu Posters (2010):
In all of these representations, Lenin invariably appeared in certain clothing and standard poses. The fixity of his appearance, like some of the other features of the posters, had much in common with religious icons and folk traditions. (Bonnell, 1997:147)
A poster produced in the fall of 1920, Da zdravstvuet pobeda truda (Long Live the Victory of Labour), incorporated oneo f the most important symbols of religious art: the cross. (Bonnell, 1997:32)
Anon (1920) Da zdravstvuet pobeda truda (Long Live the Victory of Labour).
Description of Poster
In this remarkable poster, a blacksmith is seated on top of an altar and surrounded by a globe and the works of Karl Marx. The altar rests on a platform, and the entire structure bears resemblance to the shape of a cross. The blacksmith holds a hammer in his right hand; his left hand is raised, bearing a wreath encircling a hammer and sickle. Scenes depicting the past and present surround the central image, much as marginal scenes (kleima) appear in icons, conveying characteristic episodes from the life of a saint. (Bonnell, 1997:32)
Tsarist Iconography
There was also a key female figure in tsarist iconography: the image of Russia. (Bonnell, 1997:71)
The visual representation of Russia as a woman corresponded to the word rodina, or motherland, etymologically connected to the word rodit’, to give birth. (Bonnell, 1997:71)
In contrast to the lavish ceremonial occasions, military parades, and scenes of the tsar’s family that provided material for old regime iconography, Leniniana cultivated the image of Lenin as a simple and modest man whose outstretched arm projected a new type of power. (Bonnell, 1997:146)
The device of perspectival distortion was occasionally used in tsarist posters issued during World War I. Typically, a larger-than-life Russian peasant was shown towering over the countryside and his enemies (Bonnell, 1997:33)
Stalinist Iconography
The once standard worker-icon came under increasingly severe criticism in the early 1930s. (Bonnell, 1997:34)
In a 1930 book on posters, Nikolai Maslennikov described the blacksmith image as ‘petty bourgeois [meshchanskii] in ideology. (Bonnell, 1997:34)
When a rare poster appeared in 1932 depicting two muscular men standing at an anvil with hammer in hand, a Moscow critic commented that “the image does not take into account the essence of socialist labor and is based entirely on a bourgeois conception of workers’ labor. The artist was entirely wrong in drawing from the archive of poster clichés these stereotypical blacksmiths with heavy sledgehammers.” (Bonnell, 1997:34)
The abandonment of the conventional worker-icon coincided with a reevaluation of the hero in Soviet society. (Bonnell, 1997:34)
As the proletarian worker –once the essence of Bolshevik mythology – receded in importance in visual propaganda, the image of Stalin came to occupy a central and sacred place in Soviet iconography (Bonnell, 1997:45)
Icons and colour symbolism
Of course, red had also been associated with revolution since 1792, when the Jacobins raised a red flag as a symbol of rebellion (Bonnell, 1997:13)
Male and Female Icons
By the end of the Civil War [1917-1923], Soviet artists had created new images, far more accessible to ordinary people (Bonnell, 1997:83)
The new images of the female worker and peasant also drew on mythology – the mythology of popular culture. Mythical elements from folklore and the popular idiom were fused with contemporary political ideology to create a special visual language for apprehending the unprecedented experiences of revolution and civil war (Bonnell, 1997:83)
The new worker and peasant icons – both male and female – functioned as symbols in visual propaganda (Bonnell, 1997:83)
Unlike images drawn from the neoclassical repertoire, they did not require access to special knowledge from classical antiquity and mythology (Bonnell, 1997:83)
These representations of workers and peasants were not intended to be prescriptive or serve as models for conduct. They had a different function. Their purpose was to give visual meaning to a worldview which foregrounded the concept of class and class conflict and defined gender in terms of class (Bonnell, 1997:83-84)
Secular Icons
Functioning as secular icons, political posters of the postwar era conjured up the ‘divine order’ – the socialist paradise – in which light, color, gesture, clothes, people, landscapes, and animals were perfectly harmonious (Bonnell, 1997:258)
The colors used in posters after 1945 accentuated the serene and blissful mood (Bonnell, 1997:258)
Soviet Icons
A quintessential Soviet ‘icon’ of the postwar period, the Lavrov poster attempted to conjure up a perfect ‘classless’ world of serenity, beauty and harmony. (Bonnell, 1997:244)
The image of the Stalinist order reproduced in this and other posters of the period differs in important respects from Soviet visual propaganda of earlier years. (Bonnell, 1997:258)
Lavrov, A (1950) Sbylis’ mecchty narodnye! (The People’s Dreams Have Come True!). Museum of Russian Posters: History of Poster Art (2010):
His clothing (a suit and tie), demeanor, and appearance – especially his beard – provide clues to his identity: he belongs to the ranks of the intelligentsia and has perhaps had a career as a scientist or an academic (Bonnell, 1997:244)
Heroic status in the 1930s was primarily extended to workers, peasants, and others who performed exceptional feats – most of them involving physical exertion (Bonnell, 1997:244)
The Gaze
Posters make use of the direct gaze. (Bonnell, 1997:42)
During the 1920s, political artists seldom made use of this device. (Bonnell, 1997:42)
In the 1930s, by contrast, political artists depicted workers looking directly at the viewer. (Bonnell, 1997:42)
Viktor Gorvorkov’s 1933 poster ‘Vasha lampa, tovarishch inzhener’ (Your lamp, Comrade Engineer) shows a youthful larger-than-life figure holding out a lamp in his right hand. He confronts the viewer with a penetrating direct gaze. (Bonnell, 1997:42)
The frequent use of this device altered the conventional relationship between the viewer and the image. Whereas formerly, the viewer was an observer looking in at the world of the image, now the relationship was revsersed. The image confronted the viewer. (Bonnell, 1997:42)
It might not be far-fetched to compare this phenomenon with the presence of the all-seeing eye (velikii glaz) in Orthodox iconography. (Bonnell, 1997:42)
In religious icons, key images are presented with full or three-quarter face views. Soviet artists almost invariably presented a frontal view of the blacksmith, and his gaze was seldom turned directly to the spectator (by contrast, some key posters of Red Army soldiers utilized the direct gaze) (Bonnell, 1997:33)
clip_image002[11] Govorkov, Viktor (1933) Vasha lampa, tovarishch inzhener (Your Lamp, Comrade Engineer). Museum of Russian Posters: History of Poster Art (2010):

  • Bonnell, Victoria E (1997) The Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin, London: University of California Press
  • Mitchell, W J T (1986) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, London: The University of Chicago Press

Erwin Panofsky’s Iconology on Andrea Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

I found the following is an example of how to analyse an image using Erwin Panofsky’s Iconology very useful.  I am employing this method to analyse my images in my essay.


Level 1

Subject Matter—Description. A description of the work in terms of the generic elements of the image or images depicted in, on, or by it.


Level 2

Subject Matter—Identification. The name of the subject depicted in or on a work of art: its iconography. Iconography is the named mythological, fictional, religious, or historical narrative subject matter of a work of art, or its non-narrative content in the form of persons, places, or things.


Level 3

Subject Matter—Interpretation. The meaning or theme represented by the subject matter or iconography of a work of art.


A generic description of the painting would point out the elements recognizable to any viewer, regardless of his or her level of expertise or knowledge:

"a woman holding a baby, with a man located behind her, and three men located in front of her."

Possible indexing terms to describe the scene could be

"woman," "baby," "men," "vessels," "porcelain vessel," "coins," "metal vessel," "costumes," "turbans," "hats," "drapery," "fur," "brocade," "haloes."


The next level of subject analysis is identification, which is often the only level of access cataloguing institutions routinely provide. The painting depicts a known iconographic subject that is recognizable to someone familiar with the tradition of Western art history: "Adoration of the Magi." The iconography is based on the story recounted in the New Testament (Matthew 2), with embellishments from other sources. The proper names of the protagonists are Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar, Mary, Jesus, and Joseph; these names should also be listed as part of the identifiable subject.


The third level of subject analysis is interpretation, where the symbolic meaning of the iconography is discussed.

For example, the Magi represent the Three Ages of Man (Youth, Middle Age, Old Age), the Three Races of Man, and the Three Parts of the World (as known in the fifteenth century: Europe, Africa, Asia). The gifts of the Magi are symbolic of Christ's kingship (gold), divinity (frankincense), and death (myrrh, an embalming spice). The older Magus kneels and has removed his crown, representing the divine child's supremacy over earthly royalty. The journey of the Magi symbolizes conversion to Christianity. Details related to the subject, as depicted specifically in this painting, could include Mantegna's composition of figures and objects, all compressed within a shallow space in imitation of ancient Roman reliefs.

Iconic Codes and Signs

For Peirce, the world of signs is fully described by the trio of icon, symbol, and index – signs, that is, by resemblance or anology, by convention […], and by ‘casual’ or ‘existential’ connection (a trace that signals its cause; a pointing finger). (Mitchell, 1986:56)

At the heart of any culture are a number of heavily used signs which acquire particularly rich connotations and which accordingly convey powerfully stable meanings. (Morgan and Welton, 1986:97)

Such signs may be referred to as icons, after the religious pictures of Orthodox Christianity, and which are popularly felt to embody the power of what they portray. (Morgan and Welton, 1986:97)

C S Pierce, further distinguished between iconic, indexical and symbolic codes. (Wells, 2004:29-30)

Iconic codes are based upon resemblance, for instance, a picture of someone or something. (Wells, 2004:30)

[…] American semiotician C S Pierce, signs may be iconic (based upon resemblance to that represented), indexical (based upon a trace or indicator, for example, smoke indicates fire) or symbolic (based upon conventional associations). (Wells, 2004:45)

Chemically produced photographs incorporate all three constituents: images resemble the person or place or object represented; they are indexical in that the subject had to be present for the photograph to be made, which means that the image is essentially a ‘trace’; and images circulate in specific cultural contexts within which differing symbolic meanings and values may adhere. (Wells, 2004:45)

Visual signs are what are called iconic signs. (Hall, 1997:20)

That is, they bear, in their form, a certain resemblance to the object, person or event to which they refer. (Hall, 1997:20)

A photograph is a tree reproduces some of the actual conditions of our visual perception in the visual sign. (Hall, 1997:20)

The coded iconic message: these are the connotations a particular society will draw from the visual elements. The string bag has connotations of returning from a market, which has connotations of freshness as do the vegetables. The tri-colours of the vegetables and labels suggest the Italian flag. (La Grange, 2005:234)

The non-coded iconic message: these are the objects that are literally denoted, irrespective of the societies codes, the vegetables, net, etc. (La Grange, 2005:234)

Index and Icon

Scott points out that Frank Webster in his The New Photographer (1980) quotes from Larkin’s poem Lines on a Young Ladies Photograph Album, from the Less Deceived, 1955, which both distinguishes photography from art and asserts the empirical truth of photography, but still Webster concludes ‘”Photography is, to adopt the terminology of semiology, an ‘iconic’ mode of signification”’ (p26). (La Grange, 2005:137)

This distinction between photography’s sign being the index and painting’s the icon is fundamental and suggests that the ‘happy snapper’ is closer to the real function of photography than the few art photographers whose work is hung in galleries. (La Grange, 2005:138)

Seeing a photograph as in index brings it closer to the first version of photography, the taking as opposed the second version, the production of the image. (La Grange, 2005:138)

As further support for the notion that photography is more indexical than iconic, that its function is to say something happened rather to say what it means, Scott gives the example of family and holiday snapshots; those who took them would argue that their photographs are not substitutes for memory, but aids to remembering. (La Grange, 2005:139)

Scott feels that simply to classify painting as iconic and photography as indexical is inadequate. (La Grange, 2005:140)

Dubois sees photography as being classified as indexical as indicative of a change of critical emphasis that moved from regarding photography as a mirror of the real, then to seeing it as transformation of the real, and finally to a trace of the real. (La Grange, 2005:140)

For Scott, an account of photography is needed that accommodates both of the versions of photography he outlined at the beginning of the chapter. This account would see photography both as indexical and iconic in the following ways:

1. From the beginning, the photograph has a large ‘dose’ of the iconic, the photographer maximises decisions about lenses, films, filters, proximity, etc, before exposure, so minimizing chance. This results in the photograph reflecting a set of judgements made in front of reality before the exposure;

2. Every photograph becomes an image and moves from the indexical to the iconic, but also remains indexical This entails the change of status of the photograph between the negative and the print (irrespective of the changes made during printing; paper, chemicals etc) and later (mounting and circulation etc). The assumption that the negative is the real photograph and the print is a version, a ‘meta-photo’. Scott quotes from Tournier’s The Erl-King, ‘”A photographic image, which is indisputably an emanation of reality, is at the same time consubstantial with my fantasies and on a level with my imaginary universe.”’ (p33);

3. photography as history, the older a photograph is the less able we are able to say under what circumstances the photograph was taken, and so it fills a representative role. All that remains of the indexicality is punctum, but at the same time their studium (educative and cultural value etc) increases. All photographs become, with time, documentary. (La Grange, 2005:140)

The moving of the photograph from the indexical to the iconic frees it from the instant, the Erlebnis, to a generalised and more fruitful Erfahrung. (La Grange, 2005:142)

Scott uses the following table to summarise:


Past reality





Punctum (trauma, obtuse meaning)



Present use







Pierce has three semiotic categories: the indexical, the inconic and the symbolic. (La Grange, 2005:143)

[…] the indexical has a direct link to the subject, like smoke to fire, the icon resembles the subject and the symbol is only linked by convention, like a word. (La Grange, 2005:143)

Scott takes the three categories of sign; index, icon and symbol and lists which genres of photography tend to belong to which category. (La Grange, 2005:144)

Under index, he places photojournalism, documentary, portrait, photogram, pornography and the family snap; under icon, fashion, nude photo-story and landscape; under symbol, allegory, photomontage and advertising. (La Grange, 2005:144)

All three genres can move towards being icons and all the symbol genres can move towards being iconic. (La Grange, 2005:144)

The iconic genre’s fashion and photo-story can move to either of the other signs while nude and landscape can only move to being indexical. (La Grange, 2005:144)

Peirce’s account established the pattern for later semiotics by defining photographs as composites of iconic and indexical signs:

Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature. In that aspect, then, they belong to the second class of signs, those to physical connection. (Mitchell, 1986:59-60)

The photograph occupies the same position in the world of material signs that the ‘impression’ does in the world of mental signs or ‘ideas’ in empirical epistemology. (Mitchell, 1986:61)

[…] Roland Barthes finds himself saying the following sorts of things about photographs:

The photograph (in its literal state), by virtue of its absolutely analogical nature, seems to constitute a message without a code. Here, however, structural analysis must differentiate, for of all the kinds of image only the photograph is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation. The photograph, message without a code, must thus be opposed to the drawing which, even when denoted, is a coded message. (Mitchell, 1986:60) - from: (Barthes 1977:143)

As a comment on the anthropology of photographs, a remark about the peculiar cultural status of a certain class of images, this passage seems quite accurate. (Mitchell, 1986:60)

The photograph, like its parent notion, the mental impression, enjoys a certain mystique in our culture that can be described by terms such as ‘abosolutely analogical’ and ‘message without a code’. (Mitchell, 1986:60)

The photograph does, as Barthes claims, seem to involve a different sort of ‘ethic’ from that associated with drawings and paintings. (Mitchell, 1986:60)

Semiotics, Iconic Signs and Symbols

La Grange states that icon has a slightly different meaning in semiotics. It is a sign that has no direct link to the thing it represents, but something that is made to look like the thing it represents. He gives an example that painting or road signs can be icons. (La Grange, 2005:240).

La Grangs adds that an icon is a reconstruction that resembles or imitates the subject. (La Grange, 2005:138)

Morgan and Welton state that an icon is a sign which, through frequent repetition, gains a central position in the communication systems of a culture and acquire rich and stable connotations. (Morgan and Welton, 1986:97)

There is more stuff in Mitchell (pg 162) about idols and festishes. Is this important?

Everything in the world is similar to everything else in some respects, if we look hard enough. (Mitchell, 1986:56-57)

Mitchell citing Nelson Goodman, says resemblance is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for any sort of representation, pictorial, iconic, or otherwise:

An object resembles itself to the maximum degree but rarely represents itself; resemblance, unlike representation is reflexive. Again, unlike representation, resemblance is symmetric: B is as much like A as A is like B, but while a painting may represent the Duke of Wellington, the Duke doesn’t represent the painting. Furthermore, in many cases neither one of a pair of very like objects represents the other: none of the automobiles off an assembly line is a picture of any of the rest; and a man is not normally a representation of another man, even his twin brother. Plainly, resemblance in any degree is no sufficient condition for representation … Nor is resemblance necessary for reference; almost anything can stand for anything else. A picture that represents […] an object refers to and more particularly, denotes it. Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance. (Mitchell, 1986:57)

One way out of this problem is to follow Umberto Eco’s suggestion that semiotics consider “getting rid of ‘iconic signs’” altogether:

Iconic signs are partially ruled by convention but are at the same time motivated; some of them refer to an established stylistic rule, while others appear to propose a new rule … […] One and only one conclusion seems possible at this point: iconism is not a single phenomenon, nor indeed a uniquely semiotic one. It is a collection of phenomena bundled together under an all-purpose label (just as in the Dark Ages the word “plague” probably covered a lot of different diseases) … It is the very notion of sign which is untenable and which makes the derived notion of “iconic sign” so puzzling. (Mitchell, 1986:57)

The problem with the notion of icon is not just that it embraces too many sorts of things, but, more fundamentally, that the whole concept of ‘sign’ drawn from linguistics seems inappropriate to inconicity in general, and to pictorial symbols in particular. (Mitchell, 1986:58)

[…] Socrates also begins to question the iconic theory of icons […](Mitchell, 1986:92)

“The image,” Socrates points out, “must not by any means reproduce all the qualities of that which it imitates, if it is to be an image” (Mitchell, 1986:92)

If it did ‘reproduce all the qualities’, we would have a ‘duplicate’, not an image. (Mitchell, 1986:92)

The image, therefore, is necessarily imperfect, representing things both by likeness and unlikeness. (Mitchell, 1986:92)

The image behind the concept of commodity […] is the fetish or idol, an object of superstition, fantasy and obsessive behavior. (Mitchell, 1986:162)

Both are ‘hyper-icons’ or images in a double sense, like Plato’s cave or Locke’s tabula rasa, in that they are themselves ‘scenes’ or sites of graphic image-production, as well as rhetorical images (metaphors, analogies, likenesses). (Mitchell, 1986:162)

When we speak of them as ‘images’ then it is important to keep in mind that we are using the term to refer (I) to the use of these objects as concrete vehicles in a metaphoric treatment of abstractions, and (2) to objects which themselves are graphic images or producers of images. (Mitchell, 1986:162)


  • Barthes, Roland (1977) Image-Music-Text, London: Fontana
  • Hall, Stuart, (1997) Representation, Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. London: Sage
  • La Grange, Ashley (2005), Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, Oxford: Focal Press
  • Mitchell, W J T (1986) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, London: The University of Chicago Press
  • Morgan, John and Welton, Peter (1986) See What I Mean: An Introduction to Visual Communication, London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd
  • Wells, Liz (2004) Photography: A Critical Introduction, Third Edition. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge


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)



Definition - The practice of destroying images, especially those created for religious veneration.

Digital images would seem to be inherently iconoclastic – unrealistic and irreverent. (Wells, 2003:203)

Three instances of iconoclasm which I want to look at include: National Geographic’s manipulation of the pyramids of Giza, Benetton’s blackening of the Queen’s face and Newsweek’s unconventional portrait of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. (Wells, 2003:203)

The Italian clothes company Bennetton blackened the Queen as part of an advertising campaign which addressed issues of race. (Wells, 2003:203)

Ritchin discusses the issue of Newsweek which ran a feature on the film Rain Man and included an image of Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise apparently shoulder to shoulder in their camaraderie over their joint box-office success. (Wells, 2003:203-204)

The case of the moving pyramids is already well documented. In February 1982 National Geographic published a ‘photograph’ of two of the pyramids at Giza on its front cover. The image had been digitally altered in order to obtain the required vertical format from the original horizontal format photograph. The alteration involved moving the two pyramids closer together.

However, photography was considered to be the means of representing this reassuring world in which everything appeared to stay in its time, space and place. (Wells, 2003:204)


Wells, Liz (2003) The Photography Reader. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge


The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes iconography as an ‘illustration of subject by drawings or figures; book whose essence is pictures; treatise [literature] on pictures or statuary; study of portraits, especially of an individual’.

Iconography is a pictorial illustration of a subject or collected representations illustrating a subject. It can be a set of specified or traditional symbolic forms associated with the subject or theme of a stylised work of art.

Biddingtons (2005) state that iconography is the study of symbols depicted in a work of art. These symbols derive from a readily recognisable, common currency of cultural or religious experience.

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

Religious Iconography

The Orthodox Christians grace their Churches with Holy Icons. Iconography (i.e. the painting of the Holy pictures) does not have as its aim to reproduce a saint or an incident from the Holy Gospel or the lives of the saints, but rather to express them symbolically, to impart to them a spiritual character.

In Byzantine Iconography the saint is not represented as he is in actual life, that is naturalistically, but as he is now in the heavenly kingdom, as he is in the eternity. This is called Liturgical art. Western painters paint with their eyes; the Byzantine painters paint with their heart and soul. (Iconography:2003)


Photographers Who Use Iconography

Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe looked to Classical Greek iconography for inspiration.
‘Prisoner, Dying Slave’ Michelangelo
‘Jamie’ (1974)
Study for the Naked Balzac’ Rodin
‘Derrick Cross’
Christ on the Cross’ Matthias Grünewald
But also has influences from Christian iconography
Joel Peter Witkin
Witkin has been influenced by religious and classical art.
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Artists Who Use Iconography

Panagiota Koyyari and Gigas

Panagiota Koyvari and Gigas’ ‘Prosopa (Persons’) produced a collection of more than 50 portraits of inspirational people worldwide, executed in the traditional Byzantine iconographic style.


Che Guevara


Henry Ford


Leo Tolstoy

Joe Coleman

Joe Coleman’s paintings reference Spanish-Mexican religious iconography and his intricate and obsessively detailed images often feature well-known criminals and outsiders, whom Coleman seems to consider himself to be.






Bogdan Dumitrica


Doro Hofmann




Lost Icon #3

Yana Payusova

Payosova constructs a visual language where the traditional black and white photographic imagery is mixed with the iconographic and symbolic elements of Russian Christian Orthodox culture from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.





Joe McWilliams – Icons

The work of Joe McWilliams has explored the preservative powers of selective memory. To do this, he has adopted the use of the icon form to enshrine images of political leaders from both the loyalist and republican tradition, such as Edward Carson and Padraic Pearse. He presents them as multiple haloed images within one work. We see their images progressively fade and decay within the sequence, paralleling a physical aging process as they reach a more ‘sanctified’ state. Their power to fuel current events, however, increases as their iconic status develops.


Green Icon


Orange Icon

While the facial features of these political leaders break down, the symbols of their respective ideologies (an orange sash, the tricolour) metamorphose into states of fragmented and filtered light. It is noticeable that this refracted light contains ultimately much the same mixture of colours, in the sense that they spiritually fuel the same problem. There is, too, the sense that an iconoclasm is required by way of revisionist history to exorcise their power. McWilliams cautioned against any romantic view of the past when he said:

Political heroes of one generation are canonised by later generations and these saints and their slogans might well be as relevant to today’s problems as witchcraft is to modern medical practice … Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’, like Emmet’s speech from the dock, is stirring poetry, but their cloak violence with grace and death with glory.’


May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast


McWilliams has also, in related works, indicated that contemporary figures such as Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley are already laying down iconic status. In A&B Icon (1989) […] a triptych of images of Gerry Adams has the Sinn Fein leader with ‘A’ and ‘B’ written on each hand. ‘A’ stands for Armalite rifle and ‘B’ for ballot box, categorising the continuously asserted duplicity of the Sinn Fein position on the use of violence and the election process. The painting has to do with the legacy of that position. As the images of Adams fade, it is the hand with the ‘A’ label that endures.



Kelly, Liam (1996) Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland, Kinsale: Gandon Editions, page 172

John Kindness

Anyone who has lived in Belfast for any length of time is fearful of the nightmarish doorbell ring that could, by accident or design, mean yet another hallway killing. It is a working class home with (a favourite Kindness device) the iconic faces of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley on the wall paper. Kindness depicts the assassins as terrified people. The driver of the car sees himself in the interior mirror: a dramatic confrontation with conscience as he also looks back on the carnage in which he has participated (Kelly, 1996:142).

The woman at the back of the room is reminiscent of the Madonna with Child.


Night Canvas


Madonna of the Pinks (after Raphael)



Madonna of Gin Lane (after Hogarth)


Kindness set up a cultural exchange between monumental ancient Greece and throwaway New York (Kelly, 1996:142).

clip_image001[48]Hermes (1990)

We know the ancient world by way of the incomplete. Why not the New World? Except here, unlike the battles of the Lapiths and Centaurs, good is not necessarily triumphant. Hermes, by way of Greek pottery, cycles on an exercise machine, determined to go somewhere, be somebody (a contender!). All of this extends quite naturally from the pre-New York interests of the artist: the humour, the detail, the stylistic and material invention and the political/social concerns. (Kelly, 1996:92-93).


Dulce et Dorcum est … (1990)


Scraping the Surface (1990)


5th Century BC Greek Pottery


520-510 BC Greek Pottery


Kelly, Liam (1996) Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland, Kinsale: Gandon Editions