Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2000
Colum Hourihane, ed. Image and Belief: Studies in Celebration of the Eightieth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art Princeton University Press, 1999. 342 pp.; 4 color ills.; 175 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0691010021)

Most of the papers in Image and Belief were presented in 1997 at a conference entitled “Iconography at the Index,” which celebrated the eightieth anniversary of the Index of Christian Art. It should be said from the outset that the theme of “image and belief” is sometimes tangential to the collected papers. This book is really about iconography, as the conference title makes plain. Part one constitutes a diverse and somewhat disparate range of case studies, while Part two attempts to address methodological issues that inform the ways scholars think about iconography and access images for research.

Given that iconography has been pummeled with some bad press during the last twenty years or so, it might seem surprising that anyone would consider it worthwhile to assemble a book that proclaims iconography is alive and well. Of course, coming from the Index, such a statement is partly healthy self-interest, since that institution’s very purpose has been to serve the art-historical community by providing in-depth iconographic indexing to tens of thousands of Eastern and Western illuminations, paintings, sculptures, and textiles from early apostolic times to about 1400 (

A brief overview of issues and trends in iconographic practice and theory would have been a welcome addition to the papers. Some of that discussion had already appeared in what the editor, Colum Hourihane, flags as the precedent to Image and Belief: ed. Brendan Cassidy, Iconography at the Crossroads (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 1993). Still, this was a missed opportunity, not least because Hourihane has assembled a volume with many solid and some truly outstanding examples of both traditional and innovative iconographic scholarship.

Part One, “Iconography,” contains eleven essays that cover a wide range of topics, using iconographic methodology in wide-ranging ways. In the first, “Problems in the Iconography of the Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land,” Jaroslav Folda argues that “(t)he elemental components of Crusader art largely derive from Western and Byzantine medieval art … but the content is frequently unique to the Crusader East” (18).

For Folda, this singularity of Crusader art raises a number of interesting methodological issues. For example, can we read in any meaningful way the nonfigurative architectural decoration on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem? Listing the diverse Christian and non-Christian cultures from which the disparate decorative motifs originate, Folda sees the south transept’s decoration as iconographic elements in a “text” that might be read as a universal welcome sign, proclaiming the common heritage of all pilgrims who approach Christianity’s most important monument. Folda bravely explores how seemingly nonreferential decoration, obviously not based upon any “iconographic-friendly” text, may in fact itself constitute a text of great communicative weight.

Equally interesting and thought provoking are the essays by Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk and Andreas Petzold, both of whom combine iconographic analyses with sophisticated formal analyses. Verkerk’s contribution is an especially welcome one, dealing with the beautiful and enigmatic late sixth-century Ashburnham Pentateuch (Paris, B.N.F. nouv. acq. lat 2334). She rightly takes issue with previous scholarship that tried to make sense of the manuscript’s highly selective and oddly arranged illuminations in terms of scripture’s narrative coherence. She takes another route: one must set aside, for the moment, the reconstruction of the prototype and focus instead on the existing illustrations. Secondly, the chronology of the biblical narrative has to be relinquished. The chaos created by the illustrations’ sequence is the result of trying to read them according to the biblical narrative. Pictures are not limited to this strict chronology and narrative sequence. These illustrations invite a viewing as a visual and oral structure (71-72). Verkerk convincingly demonstrates how the illuminations functioned as a visual catechism, a pedagogical tool instructing the viewer to read and to interpret sacred scripture. Here, Verkerk reminds us of a valuable lesson: the best iconographers do not presume the supposed “source” text to take precedence over its illustration.

Other outstanding papers (space prohibits listing them all) include the one by Avril Henry who investigates a possible conflation of complex iconographic elements in the Eton roundels’ Genesis sequence (Eton College, Ms. 177). Debra Hassig, Alison Stones, and Adelaide Bennett use solid iconographic and probing cultural analyses to tackle issues regarding the illustration of gender, race, and violence in the Middle Ages.

John V. Fleming provides one of the volume’s most interesting contributions in the “Personal Appropriation of Iconographical Forms: Two Franciscan Signatures.” Fleming investigates the pictorial-textual signatures of St. Francis of Assisi and Christopher Columbus. In the case of Saint Francis, for example, we see how the sign tau facilitated his almost programmatic self-fashioning. While Francis’ tau signature functioned much like a simple pictorial "cross"—the signature mark of an illiterate—its graphic function as the majuscule “T” invoked, according to Fleming, the Franciscan blessing. Francis may also have tapped into ancient practices that used the tau, sometimes interpreted as “mark” or “sign,” as a powerful prophylactic. Did Francis see himself in the role of the scribe who was ordered by God to place a “mark” on the foreheads of those who would be spared from His vengeful slaughter of a sinful humanity (Ezekiel 9: 3-4)? With such speculation, Fleming’s original scholarship broadens the possibilities of iconographic investigation. It sensitizes us to the ways signs could have both graphic and pictorial qualities and also demonstrates how signs might function within a personal and universal framework.

The second part of Image and Belief might seem at first glance to have a broader appeal than the first part, given its title, “Methodology.” Upon second glance, it may leave some cold because five of the six papers in this section deal with ICONCLASS, an iconographic indexing system used by the Index of Christian Art and many other projects around the world. In soliciting these papers, however, the editor has raised the curtain on events and practices that are crucial to the future of art history. Classification, indexing, and interpreting images form a particularly relevant triad of topics, because the continual growth of databases, and their availability over the World Wide Web, will profoundly affect the way art historians access images. ICONCLASS is used widely, so understanding how it is implemented, its strengths and weaknesses, and to what ends it can be put to use, will allow art historians to enter an arena that has largely been the domain of visual resources specialists.

ICONCLASS was devised by Henri van de Waal and published in 17 parts during the 1970s and 1980s. Attempting to be systematically exhaustive, it “is a collection of ready-made definitions of objects, persons, events, situations and abstract ideas, that can be the subject of a work of art” ( ICONCLASS methodically orders themes into nine groups and numerous subgroups, so that an event or a gesture, for example, can be catalogued with a controlled vocabulary, which is also annotated with a hierarchically arranged numbering system. The decimal notation system helps to assure indexing consistency that facilitates searches of iconographic elements across a large number of objects.

To their credit the authors of Part two do not shy away from discussing both the pros and cons of ICONCLASS. As with any system, its implementation evolves as its potential benefits and snares are understood through its use. Lutz Heusinger’s paper “How to Improve Art Historical Resources” leads the pack and spends some time explaining how the controlled vocabulary of ICONCLASS might be used to prevent what all art historians should dread—a database search result with 20,000 hits. Heusinger explains how ICONCLASS can be implemented to give weight to the importance of elements within images. For example, a record might show that the kneeling gesture would be central to a picture of a patron kneeling before a saint, where it might be secondary in a picture where minor, less detailed figures are kneeling in the background.

The idea of weighing the significance of iconographic motifs raises problems. Given that cataloguing is a form of interpretive practice, we could easily imagine countless situations in which art historians would disagree about the importance of particular motifs or scenes. In addition, examples such as Heusinger’s own particularly complex attempts to give weight to iconographic elements in portraits of Martin Luther seem to this reviewer to be a full-fledged research project. Given the realities of funding for collections of art and visual resources, cataloguing should facilitate research, it need not follow through on that research. An example of where such interpretative cataloguing practices have been particularly successful is described by Carol Togneri, who discusses the application of ICONCLASS to the primary sources indexed by the Getty Provenance Index. The Provenance Index, which gathers and disseminates information on the history of collecting, has constructed a database that allows researchers to access invaluable information that has been drawn from disparate sources (

Colum Hourihane has pulled together interesting and instructive papers that demonstrate the current sophistication of iconographic analysis, as well as the need for art historians to understand how iconographic classification systems may influence the future of the discipline.

Louis Marchesano
Curator, Photo Study Collection