What is iconography in art analysis?

What is iconography in art analysis?

How does iconographic reading allow us to identify characters and representations?

Let’s answer these questions by looking at a practical example.

By: Yolanda Silva, author of the online course Iconography of the Saints.

What is iconography in art analysis?

From the beginning, Christianity has made use of symbols to tell the stories of the saints and martyrs.

As a means of educating the faithful, who generally did not know how to read, the Saints were identified with an iconic motif associated with their lives, which is called an attribute. The same happens with the depiction of episodes of their lives: there are symbols and actions which give it context, thus allowing its identification.

In the course of the Art History studies, a scientific approach was developed to read these attributes, which was called Iconography – the study of icons or iconography in art analysis.

Iconography is a form of visual communication that makes use of the image to represent something. It is generally used in the the analysis of works of art, relating sources and meanings.

Very briefly, let’s give an example of iconography in art …

The Franciscan Martyrs of Morocco

iconography in art leitura iconográfica

EN – Martyrs of Morocco, circa 1508 PT – Paixão dos Cinco Mártires de Marrocos, cerca 1508 Francisco Henriques, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisboa, Portugal Fonte | Source: Wikimedia


By using iconography in art analysis we can identify a scene of martyrdom. Four bodies of decapitated or mutilated friars stand out. By the tonsure and simple habit, we identify them as men of the cloth, probably mendicant friars, even though we cannot yet determine the order to which they belong. In the centre, someone raises a scimitar over another friar, identifying the act of martyrdom. Four other individuals also stand out, one of whom holds a decapitated head. Two of the men are clearly Arabs, a fact confirmed by the weapons present and their clothing. So, we’ve located this scene in Arab territory.

In view of this (very brief) analysis, we can see that have three elements that are highlighted:

  1. We are faced with a scene of martyrdom: so, we can determine that these Saints must be martyrs;
  2. The five friars are probably from a Mendicant Order (even though we cannot identify this exactly, nor can we say to which order they belong);
  3. And the framework points to a Muslim context (usually the presence of characters represented as Arabs, points to this fact).

With the help of a book of the Life of Saints or similar sources, and analysing the stories that are known of Christian martyrs, we can conclude that this is a representation of the Franciscan Martyrs of Morocco: Five Franciscan friars who were martyred in Marrakech, following their mission and preaching in Morocco.

Want to know how to identify the robes of religious orders? Read post

Iconography of the Saints | Course Program
Iconography of the saintsPART 1 – First Notions

1. First notions: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

2. The evolution and definition of the Iconography as an area of study

3. The Panofsky method

PART 2 – Christian Iconography

1 – Art and Christianity – the image as a vehicle for a message

2 – Graphic and written sources

3 – The first symbols of Christianity

PART 3 – Iconography of the Saints

1. Saints and martyrs: General aspects

2. Clerical vestments

3. Most veneered Saints: symbols and attributes

You will find:
  • Lessons.
  • Videos tutorials.
  • Support texts and downloadable Ebooks:
    • 3 Support manuals
    • Ebook Symbols of Proto Christianity
    • Ebook Representations of Saints
  • Glossary:
    • clergy dress code glossary
    • attributes  of the saints glossary
  • Links for consultation and development of themes.
  • Practical exercises.
  • Bibliography and webgraphy.

Learn more about Art analysis

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