Iconography (from Gr. eikon, “image” and graphia, “writing”) is the study of the subject matter, or content, of works of art, as opposed to their style. The content of a painting or a sculpture can convey the artist’s meaning in several ways. In general, works depicting only real persons, places and objects that is, portraits, landscapes and the like may be said to have only one level of meaning, the surface or primary level. A secondary level of meaning is added when a work contains an imagined person or a fictional or mythological scene or when the artist attempts to render some abstract concept in concrete terms. Because these secondary levels of meaning cannot be explained in words in a painting or a sculpture, the artist must use a type of sign language a visual shorthand, drawing on conventions and formulas that the observer will recognize.
The function of iconography is to recognize and explain images of this kind and to search for the origins of personages and scenes.
A symbol, however, is an object or figure that by itself represents something else, often an abstract idea.
The earliest recorded images were those associated with the rites of ancient religions, especially those in which the deity had a human form. To propitiate or petition the gods, worshippers offered sacrifices to statues in temples; the statue was thought to contain the actual presence of the deity and the temple was considered to be his “house.” This was developed significantly by the great poet Homer who organized the ancient gods into a kind of family or pantheon and gave each one an individual personality and specific physical characteristics. Following Homer’s lead, the classical artists endowed each god with recognizable attributes: Zeus was sometimes accompanied by an eagle, the bird sacred to him; Poseidon, who ruled the sea, carried a trident; Artemis, the huntress, had a bow and a quiver; and so on.
The Romans used art to magnify the glory of their own accomplishments. Arches, columns, altars and public buildings were decorated with sculpture commemorating the triumphs of Roman generals and patrician families basked in the reflected glory of the images of the ancient gods and heroes from whom they claimed descent. Statues of the later emperors, who regarded themselves as gods, often depicted the rulers with the appropriate divine attributes. Along with symbols and attributes, allegory was well understood by the Romans.
Early Christian Iconography
The symbols and attributes used by the Romans contrasted sharply to the few, simple images used by the early Christians, who had to be circumspect in the face of religious persecution. On sacramental cups, seals and lamps the Holy Spirit was symbolized by a dove and Christ by a fish (perhaps because at the time fish was one of the elements of the sacred meal) or by a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. The Savior was also represented by a monogram formed by combining the ancient Greek letters chi and rho (XP), the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman-man Empire, its imagery began to reflect borrowings from the emperor’s court at Constantinople. Christ was no longer depicted as a youthful shepherd, but as an enthroned emperor and judge with a dignified beard. The Virgin Mary appeared crowned and robed like the empress and saints dressed like courtiers approached the throne of God with veiled hands, as was the custom in the courts of Eastern monarchs.
The repertoire of symbolic subjects included scenes from the New Testament reflecting the annual cycle of the principal festivals of the Church. Subjects from the Old Testament, which earlier had served as examples of God’s power to save the Hebrews in the fiery furnace, Noah and the flood now reflected the belief that, as part of God’s plan, certain episodes in the Old Testament prefigured events in the New Testament. Jonah, who formerly symbolized the idea of salvation, now became the type the original model of Christ, whose death and resurrection was seemingly foreshadowed by Jonah’s miraculous encounter with the great fish.
The Romans decorated their villas with mosaic floors and exquisite wall frescoes portraying rituals, myths, landscapes, still-life and scenes of daily activities. Using the technique known as aerial perspective, in which colors and outlines of more distant objects are softened and blurred to achieve spatial effects, Roman artists created the illusion of reality.
Early Christian and Byzantine Painting
Surviving Early Christian painting dates from the 3-4C and consists of fresco paintings and mosaics on the walls of churches. Certain stylization and artistic conventions are characteristic of these representations of the New Testament events. For example, Christ was shown as the Good Shepherd, a figural type adopted from representations of god Hermes; the resurrection was symbolized by depiction of the Old Testament story of Jonah, who was delivered from the fish.
The otherworldly presentation became characteristic of Byzantine art and the style came to be associated with the imperial Christian court of Constantinople, which survived from 330 AD until 1453. The Byzantine style is also seen on icons, conventionalized paintings on wooden panels of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints, made for veneration.
Fresco (an Italian word meaning “fresh”) is a technique of durable wall painting used extensively for murals. Fresco, a fresh wet layer of plaster is applied to a prepared wall surface and painted with pigments mixed with water. The pigments soak into the plaster, which, when dry, forms a permanent chemical bond fusing paint and wall surface. Another type of fresco, painting on a dry surface with adhesive binder flakes, is not permanent. Because all fresco is susceptible to humidity and weathering, its use is limited.
Two ancient sculpture techniques are carving and modeling. Carving is a direct subtractive process and carved sculptures were fashioned from such durable materials as stone, ivory and wood. Modeling is a direct additive process in which a pliable material is built up around an armature or skeletal framework.
Sculpture may be created in two or three dimensions; relief sculpture and the round. Depending on how far the figures emerge from the background plane, relief may be of varying degrees; low (bas-relief), middle, or high.
Small fertility figures or mother goddesses modeled in terra-cotta found in Catalhoyuk (5500 BC) and Hacilar are among the earliest examples of sculpture in Anatolia.
Archaic Period (7-6C BC)
Monumental sculpture in limestone and marble appeared during the archaic period. The first statues were influenced by Egyptian sculpture, which in the 7C BC already had a long tradition. Egyptian sculpture, however, showed little stylistic change over the centuries. Sculptors used the prototype of a standing figure with one foot advanced and the hands clenched to the sides and developed it so that within a hundred years the same general type was no longer stylized but had become a naturalistic rendering with subtle modeling. This type of figure is usually called a kouros (Gr. “boy”) and is pictured in the nude. The female equivalent, or kore, is always dressed in rich drapery enhanced by incision and color. Color was also used for the hair and facial features of both male and female statues. The figures do not seem to represent a divinity, nor are they usually portraits, but they are images of the ideal masculine or feminine form instead.
Classical Period (5-4C BC)
Especially in the earliest phase, sculpture was carved in a severe (or formal) classical style. The male body became a broad-shouldered, trim-hipped athlete, often shown in arrested motion. The female figures were still severely draped; the earlier archaic smiles were sometimes softened in expression.
Hellenistic Period (4-2C BC)
After the death of Alexander the Great, his extensive empire was dissolved into many different kingdoms. This fragmentation was symbolic of the diversity and multiplicity of artistic tendencies in the Hellenistic period. The great centers of art were in the islands and in the cities of the eastern Mediterranean Alexandria, Antioch and Pergamum.
The Hellenistic period was a period of eclecticism. Art still served a religious function or to glorify athletes, but sculpture and painting were also used to decorate the homes of the rich. There was an interest in heroic portraits and in colossal groups, but also in humbler subjects. The human being was portrayed in every stage and walk of life; there was even an interest in caricature.
The awareness of space that characterized architecture also began to emerge in sculpture and painting. As a result landscapes and interiors appeared for the first time in both reliefs and painted panels. The great Altar of Zeus from Pergamum (c.180 BC), created by artists for King Eumenes II, was enclosed by a high podium decorated with a monumental frieze of the battle between the gods and giants. Many Hellenistic tendencies were realized in this work. The basis for its iconography was firmly rooted in classical tradition. The baroque style of the sculpture was characteristic of the time in its exaggeration of movement, physical pain and emotion, all set against a background of swirling draperies.
Early Christian and Byzantine Sculpture
After the shift of the empire’s administrative center (AD 330) from Rome to Constantinople, official interest in monumental sculpture declined. Large sculptures in the round were viewed as idolatrous by the early Christians.
High relief work continued to be carved on the sides of sarcophagi, modified so that figures from pagan mythology either disappeared or were adapted as Christian images and symbols.
Mosaic is the art of embedding small pieces of cut stone or pigmented glass in a plaster bed to serve as floor or wall decoration. Mosaic reached its greatest heights in Early Christian and Byzantine art and architecture. The earliest mosaics found in Anatolia date back to Phrygian period; palace ruins in Gordion.
Solidity, resistance to moisture, durability and color-fastness made mosaic a practical form of architectural decoration. The process of constructing a mosaic begins with cubes of cut stone, pigmented glass, or gold or silver leaf sandwiched by glass. These cubes are known as tesserae.
The sophisticated mosaics evolved from the practice of gathering pebbles from the beach and setting them in a cement bed to provide durable flooring in homes and temples. At first randomly scattered and set, the pebbles later were arranged in simple ornamental patterns.
Although pebble mosaics continued to be used as simple and inexpensive floor covering, they were largely displaced in the Hellenistic era by tessellated mosaics of cut stone, colored glass paste and occasionally of mother-of-pearl, shells and terra-cotta. Once freed from dependency on the random shapes, sizes and colors of beach pebbles, Hellenistic mosaicists executed works of great splendor, intricacy and scale.
Mosaic pavements became (3C BC) the fashion in the homes and villas of the wealthy throughout the Mediterranean area. Hellenistic examples served as models for Roman mosaics until the 1C AD, when changing aesthetic tastes and economic factors brought about the temporary displacement of polychrome pictorial mosaics by a black-and-white mosaic style. Beginning on a small scale in private homes, where black figures and decorative motifs were silhouetted against a field of white marble or limestone, this style soon carpeted the floors of public baths, marketplaces and other areas of public assembly. Because it withstood the effects of humidity and moisture and because the tesserae were color-fast, mosaic was often used to decorate garden walls, fountains and baths in the ancient world.
Mosaic as a form of wall decoration achieved its greatest expression in Early Christian and Byzantine art.
In Constantinople, the center of Byzantine civilization, relatively few schemes of mosaic decoration are preserved because of natural loss and the destruction wrought by iconoclasts and the Crusaders.