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Iconography in Greek Mythology

Art is not and has never been naive. From the earliest times to the present day, man has used art as a mechanism of communication in order to achieve a goal, which has changed over the ages. The quest to communicate is what has prevailed in the development of art. Throughout the history that we know until today, we have seen this intention on the part of a great variety of artists who have sought through time to represent their context, the world that surrounds them, and their own inner world. From prehistory to performance art, from the cave to the museum, the aim has been the same: to leave a mark; to leave a record that we were here, that we felt, that we lived and had experiences that deserve to be portrayed through a wide variety of media. Art has been a vehicle for communicating denunciation that seeks to shout at the masses; that manifestation that seeks to express what words fall short of.

With words - specifically with language - communication becomes borderline, and the transmission of ideas suffers various obstacles. However, since time immemorial, images have served as a way of establishing links that go beyond territories: it is then that communication becomes universal. And it is precisely this very special character that connects us all, even if we come from different parts of the planet; this is what makes us feel part of a whole, of a collective nucleus, and of the same history, which we have shared since prehistoric times. What difference is there between that caveman who decided to capture the outline of his hand with a Mondrian painting? The answer is none. Both sought to leave their mark in time, to be remembered, to capture that idea in a physical medium so that others could understand that their passage through this life was not in vain.

Rock Art Photography. Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

In this way, man has acquired a large repertoire of symbols that function as social conventions in order to approach an interpretation of what the artist wanted to communicate. Images are, therefore, a reflection of a wide variety of issues, from personal, social, political and collective. They are therefore a way of understanding history and how it has developed. Images speak in a universal language through symbols, and knowing about them is what helps us to understand Art History in a more globalised way, and it is here where the field of iconography takes centre stage as the discipline that allows us to know the content of a work by virtue of its specific characteristics and its relationship with certain literary sources; it is the discipline of the description and classification of images (García Mahíques, 2008). Thanks to the iconographic study of a work, it is possible to understand not only what is represented, but also the intention, the context and even the intrinsic world of the artist, making art in general more meaningful. Iconography helps us to understand what we often overlook when visiting a museum; it helps us to understand our history and our attempts to understand each other.

The main objective of this series of articles will be to understand the importance of iconography for Art History and how it serves as a fundamental tool for interpretation. This will be demonstrated by taking Greek mythology as the main focus of analysis. Fundamental mythological beings and deities such as Prometheus, Zeus, Pandora, Heracles and Aphrodite will be analysed from an iconographic perspective. We will analyse how each of them has been represented in art from the most ancient to the most recent times in order to demonstrate an evolution in the way myth has been perceived. In order to do this, it is necessary to theorise and explore iconography and its importance in art.

The term - and the discipline itself - developed between the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, standing out above all as an auxiliary science to history in general (Depeaux, 1936). This connotation is given by the research of the Austrian archaeologist Emanuel Löwy (1857-1938) who tried to give a general foundation to the historical study of ancient art. His analyses reveal a concern for iconography in the context of the artistic production of Greek craftsmen. As is well known, artists in ancient Greece were specialists in a particular craft in which a traditional heritage of techniques and iconographies necessary to achieve a certain degree of quality was formed (García Mahíques, 2008). Löwy is considered to be the first to determine that there was an iconographic constant in the compositional schemes of craftsmen. "When a workshop or an artist invented a plausible way of representing something, they were codified in civilisation" (García Mahíques, 2008). That is to say, the artist would opt for a way of representing a subject and if it was successful and of a certain quality, it became, by way of convention, the way in which that subject would be represented. It is also true that each workshop included small variations that tell us not only of the distinction between one school or another, between one artist or another, but also of the modifications that the representation of a theme underwent over time. For Löwy, it was essential to study the iconographic scheme and the background of a representation in order to know the artist's position in terms of quality, contribution and historical position of his work (García Mahíques, 2008).

Portrait of Emanuel Löwy
Portrait of Emanuel Löwy

On the other hand, we find the viewpoint of Erwin Panofsky, a renowned German art historian exiled to the United States. His thinking was clearly influenced by Aby Warburg, the German historian and founder of the Warburg Library of Cultural Studies. Panofsky became his pupil and devoted much of his life to the study of iconography, which he regarded as a purely intellectual analysis, leaving little or nothing to sensitive experience; he understood the work of art as a cultural expression of pure intellectual ideas. In this way, Panofsky advocates that the task of the art historian is to try to reconstruct the sociological and progress foundations on which the works of art were elaborated (Rodríguez López, 2005). He establishes three levels of significance (Panofsky, 1992).

Portrait of Erwin Panofsky
  1. Pre-iconographic level: this is the primary or natural meaning of the work of art. It is the first view, the formal description of what the spectator observes without relating it to other subjects. For this level an attentive and detailed look is necessary.

  2. Iconographic level: this is the level where the contents and themes related to what appears in the work of art are sought to be clarified. This process is related to the logical and analytical part by turning to cultural tradition, iconic and literary sources, as Löwy originally advocated. The viewer will try to identify the theme represented and place it in the context of the written sources.

  3. Iconological level: this is where we seek to define the intrinsic significance or content of the work. It is the deepest explanation or dimension. At this level, we must delve into the concept or ideas hidden in the figurative themes and their scope in a given cultural context. At this point, it is necessary to carry out an extensive investigation of the written texts and the cultural context related to the work of art to be analysed. This is the most complex level, as arbitrary or unfounded interpretations are common but must be avoided at all costs.

These three levels proposed by Panofsky are those necessary to carry out a possible exhaustive analysis of a given work. They will be used throughout this series of articles in order to carry out an in-depth investigation of the works to be analysed in each of them.

On the other hand, and in view of Panofsky's use of the term iconology, it is necessary for the purposes of a more complete explanation to define this term and understand the difference with iconography. As mentioned above, in classical Greek and Roman antiquity, iconography played a fundamental role in the ordering of works by themes or iconographic types. However, it was not until after German Romanticism that the suffix of the term changed from "graphy" to "logy". The word iconography comes from the Greek etymons εικόν -image, figure, representation- and ϒράΦω -write, compose, designate, record- and means the description and classification of images, while the term iconology contains the suffix logôs which alludes to the word, revelation, reasoning, reflection, and derives towards the conceptual and more profound without abandoning the descriptive character. Iconology is basically the historical interpretation of images relating them to cultural and historical situations and contexts. (García Mahíques, 2008).

Iconography alone should not attempt to interpret the testimony and spiritual value of works of art. Iconography is descriptive (analytical or synoptic alternatively), but it does not have the task of offering the exegesis of artistic manifestations, which on the other hand for iconology itself are never exclusively artistic. A well-conceptualised iconology takes as its reference point a well-exercised iconography (...). Thus iconography is concerned above all with observing analytical and comparative descriptions; iconology, having tackled the systematic examination of the development of themes, poses the problem of their interpretation, dealing more with the content than with the subject matter of works of art; its aim is also to deal with unreality, to understand the symbolic, dogmatic or mystical meaning, expressed (or perhaps hidden) in figurative forms (Hoogewerff, 1931).

Having pointed out the differences between iconography and iconology, it should be made clear that both will form part of the subsequent analysis of the mythological representations in order to carry out a more complete study. However, and as the name of the articles itself dictates, iconography will be of particular relevance when it comes to delving deeper into the selected works.

Finally, it is also necessary to mention the Viennese historian Fritz Saxl and his work The Life of Images. In it, he explains how images contain in themselves a representative meaning that responds to a particular time and context and that influences and suggests the cultural thought to which the image belongs. In spite of this, Saxl suggests that these same representations, however much they may have influenced the society in which they were created, can also fall into oblivion and be erased from the collective memory, only to reappear after centuries of disuse. In this constant appearing and disappearing in history, images undergo transformations (Saxl, 1988). As part of the idiosyncrasy of each culture, certain recurring themes or symbols are treasured, which are usually inherited and form part of the collective thinking that corresponds to a given culture (Rodríguez López, 2005). However, these can undergo modifications and this is part of what the art historian must pursue in order to understand how images have evolved and why.

Fritz Saxl in the reading room of the Warburg Art History Library, Hamburg

Before beginning the development of the series of articles 101, it is thought necessary to establish, by way of a glossary, a few definitions of terms that will be used later, in order to clarify any doubts about them. They will be taken from the work Introduction to the Iconographic Method by Castiñeiras González.

Subject or theme: the episode or event around which the work of art is constituted.

Iconographic attribute: this is the object that helps to characterise the personality of the figure depicted, always in a conventional manner and in accordance with his biography and status. Knowledge of this object is necessary in order to establish the subject. If the object is absent, the meaning of the images can be considerably altered. There are occasions when they are not used properly, which can lead to confusion.

Personification: a human figure that represents or embodies an abstract idea or an element of nature. Personifications include images of physical phenomena, accidents or elements of nature.

Symbol: an image that refers to an idea and refers the viewer to a non-tangible reality. Symbolic images make up allegory.

Allegory: this consists of representing real objects whose meaning goes beyond tangible reality. These are complex scenes in which there is room for a symbolic reading of each of their icons.

Metamorphosis: this is the transformation or modification of the external appearance of the characters. When this occurs, it is common to observe a dissociation between form and content.

Allegoria della Primavera, Sandro Botticelli. 1480. Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi

In this way, we can begin to see how these theoretical questions are reflected in concrete examples of the representation of classical mythology from antiquity to the present day. It is thought that nowadays knowledge of the iconographic discipline is necessary not only for those who are training in Art History, but also for anyone who is interested in understanding what is happening in that painting or why that sculpture tells us about a specific event and not about another. This is a guide to sharpen their gaze and become observers of art.


Castiñeiras González, A.M. (1998). Introducción al método iconográfico. Barcelona.

Depeaux, A. (1936). L’iconographie science auxiliaire de l’histoire. VI Congrès international des sciences historiques.

García Mahíques, R. (2008). Iconografía e Iconología. La Historia del Arte como Historia Cultural. Encuentro.

Hoogewerff, G.J. (1931). L’iconologie et son importance pour l’étude systématique de l’art chrétien. Rivista di archeologia cristiana VIII.

Panofsky, E. (1992). Estudios sobre iconología. Alianza.

Rodríguez López, A. (2005). Introducción general a los estudios iconográficos y a su metodología. E-excellence.

Image sources:

Anonymous. (1940). The German art historian and essay writer of the 20th century Erwin Panofsky. Sourced from:

Botticelli, S. (1480). Allegoria della Primavera. Sourced from:

Cecowski, M. (2005). Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. Sourced from:

Emanuel Löwy. (n.d.). Sourced from:

Photographer unknown. (1921). Fritz Saxl in the reading room of the Warburg Art History Library, Hamburg. Sourced from:


Author Photo

Valentina García Márquez

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