Iconography, in art history, the study of subject matter in art. The meaning of works of art is often conveyed by the specific objects or figures that the artist chooses to portray; the purpose of iconography is to identify, classify, and explain these objects. Iconography is particularly important in the study of religious and allegorical painting, where many of the objects that are pictured—crosses, skulls, books, or candles, for example—have special significance, which is often obscure or symbolic.
The use of iconographic symbols in art began as early as 3000 BC, when the Neolithic civilizations of the Middle East used nonhuman or animal figures to represent their gods. Thus, the Egyptian mother goddess Hathor was associated with the cow and usually appeared in relief sculpture and wall paintings as a cow-headed woman. The sun god Ra had a hawk's head, and the creator Ptah appeared as a bull.
In ancient Greece and Rome, each of the gods was associated with specific objects. Zeus (Jupiter), the father of the gods, was often accompanied by an eagle or a thunderbolt; Apollo, the god of art, by a lyre; Artemis (Diana), the hunter, by a bow and quiver. In addition, the Romans perfected the use of secular allegorical symbols. For example, a woman surrounded by bunches of grapes and sheaves of wheat would be readily understood as a representation of the bounties of the earth.
Early Christian art during the period of Roman persecution was highly circumspect, and innocuous objects—the fish and the dove—were used to symbolize Christ and the Holy Spirit. Later Christian art, however, became replete with iconographic symbols. In particular, many of the saints became associated with specific objects—Saint Peter with two keys, for instance, or Saint Catherine with a broken wheel.
During the Renaissance and through the 18th century, allegorical paintings were especially popular, as artists constructed elaborate symbolic schemes to illustrate such themes as the vanity of human existence. Objects such as jewels, coins, and musical instruments personified the vain pleasures of life, while skulls, hourglasses, and extinguished candles were memento mori, or reminders of death.
In the modern period, much art has become so highly individualistic that the use of widely understood iconographic objects has disappeared. Some exceptions are Cubism, Dada, and pop art, the images of which are everyday objects—newspapers, soup cans, photographs, comic-book figures—that have become genuine iconographic symbols reflecting modern culture.