As the name suggests, Iconography deals with the use of images. Iconography is a style of art, which deals with identifying, studying and interpreting images used in any painting. Iconography is the traditional or conventional use of images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject. 

What is Iconography? 

As an art style, Iconography is defined as the process of identification, description, classification and interpretation of themes and subjects of art in the visual arts. The word iconography comes from the Greek words ‘ikon’ (which means image) and ‘graph’ (which means to write). Regarding art, an iconography may also be indicative of an artist's use of this imagery in a particular artwork in terms of the content of the image, such as the number of figures used, their placement and gestures.  

William Blake 
The Good and Evil Angels 1795–? c.1805 

Origin of Iconography:  

The use of images to depict something is very common in many cultures. However, since 1940 it emerged as a dominant art form. The use of icons was seen 7th century onwards when in the orthodox Greek churches, a picture of Jesus Christ was used as an object of devotion. This picture was called an ‘icon’. That’s how the term icon came to be associated with any object or image that is outstanding or has a special meaning attached to it.  

It was in the 18th century that English poet, painter, and printmaker, William Blake invented a complex personal iconography to demonstrate his vision of man and God, and much scholarship has been devoted to interpreting it.   

In the 19th century, iconography got separated from archaeology and became to be associated with religious symbolism in Christian art. In the 20th century, the trend of Christian iconography continued, but some artists like Pablo Picasso explored other aspects of European art as well, which were more secular and classical.   

Use of icons in various cultures:  

The occurrence of religious images is frequent in Indian art replete with the 'mudra' and gestures with specific meanings. Some features of the iconography in Indian art comprise the aureole and halo, which are also seen in Christian and Islamic art. Divine qualities and attributes are depicted through asana and ritual tools such as the dharma chakra, vajra, dadar, chhatra, swastika, phurba and danda. Other examples include the Mathuran style that drew upon the indigenous traditions of India in portraying the human form in robust, rounded volumes symbolizing the fertility of nature. During this period, Buddhist architecture and sculpture proliferated and the iconography of Buddhist images was formulated.  

Examples of Iconography  

Iconography may also be used to convey some specific meanings in various art genres. Some of these art genres and icons used in these are discussed below:  

1. Religion: Iconography in religion means the use of imagery to convey religious concepts and ideas or to depict religious events, such as:  

  • Since the 2nd century, the cross has been used as a religious icon to represent Christianity. Similarly, Catholicism has been depicted by the use of a crucifix, which is a cross with Jesus on it However, Protestants and other Christian faiths do not use the cross to depict Jesus in their iconography.  
  • In Indian culture, a halo (a circle of light behind the head of a person) is used to depict a saint or a holy person  
  • In most cultures, divine beings are depicted in human form, while demons and evil forces are portrayed as menacing animals. 

2. Art: When it comes to art, iconography means the use of images and symbols in various artworks to convey a deeper meaning. It is an attempt to say more using fewer elements. Some common uses are:  

  • The colour red is used to symbolize danger and also death.   
  • The shape of a heart is widely used to symbolize love and romance.  
  • Since ages, olive branch and dove have been used as an icon to symbolize peace.  

3. Film and Television: Some images, items signify a particular geographic location, time frame, or idea. The media industry has made extensive use of iconography to communicate the background, concept, or timeframe of the story. For example:   

  • Almost all horror movies use ‘haunted houses, and unique background music to symbolize horror.   
  • Sci-fi movies show characters wearing futuristic clothes and dealing with high-tech gadgets and moving in flying cars.  
  • Bad guys are shown wearing leather jackets, moving on big bikes and wearing black colours.  

4. Everyday Life: When it comes to our daily life, there also there are many clichéd symbols and images, which are used to convey a specific meaning.  

  • The flags of various countries convey some meaning. All visual elements of the flag, even colours convey some meaning. Take, for example, the Indian flag, also called tri-colour. The saffron colour stands for valour, the white for peace, while eh green for prosperity.  
  • Many countries have used birds and animals, as their symbols. For examples, Kangaroos represent Australia, Kiwis represent New Zealand, and Tiger is used to symbolize India.  
  • Though most schools have moved to modern whiteboards, an image of a blackboard with chalk is still used to convey the meaning of school and education  


Though an old concept, Iconography is a very effective way to communicate a large idea in a very short, concise, and abbreviated manner. The use of icons helps artists communicate some background elements like timeframe, geography, and the concept behind their artwork, without having to specify so many things in words.