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Iconography vs. Iconology: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Updated on October 7, 2023
Iconography refers to the study and interpretation of images and symbols in art, while Iconology delves deeper into the cultural and historical context behind these images.

Key Differences

Iconography is an area of art history that focuses on the description, identification, and interpretation of the content of images. It deals with the literal and direct meaning of symbols, signs, and motifs used in artworks. On the other hand, Iconology goes beyond the immediate, delving into the underlying symbolism, exploring the broader cultural, historical, and philosophical interpretations of those images.
Artists often use specific images or symbols in their work to convey particular meanings or stories. This usage and the study of such visual elements fall under Iconography. However, Iconology asks deeper questions about why certain symbols or images were used, what cultural or societal factors influenced those choices, and how the images reflect broader cultural or philosophical contexts.
In simple terms, while Iconography might identify a serpent in a painting as a symbol of temptation, Iconology would delve into the historical and cultural reasons why serpents have been associated with temptation and what that might mean in the context of the artwork.
Both Iconography and Iconology require a detailed understanding of art, history, and culture. Iconography often serves as the foundation, providing the tools to decode the direct symbols in art. In contrast, Iconology builds on this foundation to provide a deeper understanding and interpretation of the artwork within its broader context.
It's essential to understand that while Iconography and Iconology are distinct, they are also deeply interconnected. Iconography provides the necessary groundwork, while Iconology offers the depth and breadth of interpretation, making them both invaluable tools in the study of art history.

Comparison Chart


Direct interpretation of symbols
Deeper cultural and historical context of symbols

Study Depth

Surface-level meaning
In-depth meaning and interpretation


Describing and identifying symbols in art
Understanding the broader context of those symbols

Associated Terms

Symbols, signs, motifs
Cultural context, historical context, philosophical interpretation


Provides the foundation
Builds upon the foundation set by iconography

Iconography and Iconology Definitions


A collection or reference work of images and symbols.
The museum had an iconography section for reference.


Exploration of the philosophical interpretations of symbols in art.
The iconology of the piece hinted at existential themes.


The traditional or conventional images associated with a subject.
The iconography of Greek gods often includes specific attributes.


The study of the cultural and historical context of images in art.
Through iconology, we can understand the societal influences on art.


The study and interpretation of visual symbols in art.
The iconography of medieval art is filled with religious symbols.


The interpretation of the main themes of a visual work.
With iconology, one can understand the overarching narrative of an artwork.


The practice of using symbols and images to represent concepts.
The iconography in ancient Egyptian art is rich and varied.


Understanding symbols within their broader societal context.
Iconology allows for a comprehensive study of art in its historical setting.


The visual images and symbols used in a work of art.
The iconography of the painting revealed its deeper themes.


Delving into the deeper meaning and symbolism of images.
While the iconography identified the symbols, iconology explained their significance.


Pictorial illustration of a subject.


The branch of art history that deals with the description, analysis, and interpretation of icons or iconic representations.


The collected representations illustrating a subject.


The study of icons in art or art history.


A set of specified or traditional symbolic forms associated with the subject or theme of a stylized work of art.


The discussion or description of portraiture or of representative images. Cf. Iconography.


A treatise or book dealing with iconography.


The branch of art history that studies visual images and their symbolic meaning (especially in social or political terms)


A set of specified or traditional symbolic forms associated with the subject or theme of a stylized genre of art.


The art of representation by pictures or images; the description or study of portraiture or representation, as of persons.
The iconography of the ancients


The study of representative art in general.


The art or representation by pictures or images; the description or study of portraiture or representation, as of persons; as, the iconography of the ancients.


The study of representative art in general.


The images and symbolic representations that are traditionally associated with a person or a subject;
Religious iconography
The propagandistic iconography of a despot


What does iconography mainly focus on?

Iconography focuses on the study and interpretation of visual symbols in art.

How does iconology deepen our understanding of art?

Iconology delves into the cultural and historical context behind symbols, offering deeper interpretations.

Can iconography be seen as a starting point in art interpretation?

Yes, iconography often serves as a foundational tool for decoding direct symbols in art.

Why is iconology crucial in art history?

Iconology provides insights into the broader societal and historical factors influencing artworks.

Is iconography limited to religious art?

No, iconography can apply to any art form with symbolic representations.

How does iconology differ in various cultures?

Iconology is influenced by the cultural, historical, and societal contexts of each region, leading to varied interpretations.

Can iconography help in identifying symbols in ancient art?

Yes, iconography aids in describing and identifying symbols used in artworks from any era.

How does iconology relate to philosophy?

Iconology can explore philosophical interpretations of symbols within artworks.

Do modern artworks still have iconography?

Absolutely, modern artworks often utilize symbols, and understanding their iconography can be insightful.

What might iconology reveal about a society's values?

Iconology can shed light on societal beliefs, values, and cultural influences of a specific time.

Can iconology be subjective?

While based on study, iconology interpretations can vary based on the viewer's background and knowledge.

Are iconography and iconology modern concepts?

While they are studied today, the concepts of iconography and iconology apply to art from all eras.

Is there a specific method for iconography study?

Iconography involves systematic identification and interpretation of symbols, often based on established conventions.

Can iconography include everyday objects?

Yes, everyday objects can have symbolic meanings, making them part of an artwork's iconography.

Why are both iconography and iconology integral to art appreciation?

While iconography offers direct symbol understanding, iconology provides depth, enriching the appreciation process.

Can iconology explore political themes in art?

Yes, iconology can delve into the political contexts influencing or depicted in artworks.

Is iconography limited to visual arts?

While primarily used in visual arts, iconography can also apply to symbols in literature or other forms.

Can iconography change over time?

Yes, the interpretation and significance of symbols in iconography can evolve with cultural shifts.

How does iconology help in understanding abstract art?

Iconology offers insights into the broader themes and contexts that might influence abstract art.

How is iconology useful for art curators?

Iconology provides curators insights into the deeper contexts of artworks, aiding in exhibition narratives.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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