Iconography is the term to describe the “hidden messages” that are contained in works of art – most notably, paintings. Most religions, including Christianity, have their own sets of iconography. For instance, in this painting, there is a vase of lilies on the table. The Virgin Mary is known by her own flower, the lily, which signifies her purity. Her virginity is also denoted by the water urn and the bleach-white towel in the background. If you had a high powered magnifying glass, you would notice that the book on the table is actually the Bible and that it is opened to a passage about her miraculous holy conception. In case you are wondering how the “Immaculate Conception” could be written in a book before it actually happened, you might like to know that the term refers to her own birth. Mary, in some traditions, is believed to have been born without sin. If you look closely, you will see what looks like Casper with a cross zooming in through the window. This symbol is twofold – first of all, the Virgin was thought to have conceived much like a pane of glass – she was impregnated, yet remained undamaged, just as light passes through glass. Secondly, at this point in time, it was commonly thought that she had the spirit of Christ go in through her ear which is exactly where that little Ghost is heading.
On the right hand side of the painting, Joseph is at work in his shop. On his table are carpentry tools, but there is also a mouse trap. This is a complex image that indicates that Christianity will be the trap that contains the evil of Satan, whose iconography is that of a mouse or a rat. On the left hand panel are images of the donors (the people who paid to have this painted). Behind them is a man in red, but I don’t think I have ever read anything that adequately describes who he is.
There are a lot more “messages” in this painting. Note that there is one candle on the fireplace indicating the presence of God – this also appears in the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait chandelier on p. 520 (the book also describes some of the iconography in this painting). Northern painting, in particular, loved using iconography. People felt educated and erudite when they understood paintings such as this. People in the 15th through 18th centuries would have understood complex iconography. Why? Because they were surrounded by art – art in church, art in government buildings, art in middle and upper class homes, etc. We, on the other hand, are surrounded by TV and computers. However, if you look around you, you will see a lot of iconography that even we understand. Red, white and blue are examples of our patriotism; if you see a yellow triangle, you will yield even if it doesn’t have the word “yield” printed on it; the notorious red circle with a line through it means “no”; little abstract stick people tell us which bathroom to use; etc. (End)
Does knowledge of iconography contribute to one’s appreciation of a work of art?
Does ignorance of iconography compromise one’s ability to appreciate a work of art?
Is the beauty inherent or do you need to understand the iconography?
How would someone raised in a non-Christian country respond to this painting (the Merode Altarpiece)?
How much of this painting, in particular, would you have understood if I had not pointed things out?
Please look through the chapter and use other paintings to support your argument.
Remember to do a good job – you are the designated teachers for the other half of the class – back up your arguments with examples and proofread your entries.
If you are an odd age (19, 25, 33, 57, etc.), read Scream Stolen from Norway Museum and Munch Art Thieves Jailed in Oslo, then answer the following questions in the “Munch” thread.
Were these paintings insured? For how much or why not?
What are the values of these paintings?
What determines the value of a work of art (tough question; do some investigating)?
What does the word ‘priceless’ actually mean in relation to art?
What iconography can you find in this work of art? (Your honest answer will go much further with me than something found on the Internet.)
Make sure that you don’t just write a simple, terse sentence to answer each question. I’ll be looking for thorough answers throughout this assignment.