Online Course: How Images Mean: An Introduction to Iconographic Theory, 27-31 July 2020

Course tutor: Paul Taylor (Curator, Warburg Institute Photographic Collection) 

Ever since Gombrich’s Art and Illusion and Goodman’s Languages of Art, the theory of images has been a lively and growing subject. And yet in all the many publications in the field, only a handful mention an approach which has been important in art history for centuries – iconography, ‘that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art’, as Erwin Panofsky put it. There are good reasons for this: much recent work has been devoted to theories of resemblance, rather than what images can be taken to mean. And at the same time, iconography has seemed like a limited phenomenon. Panofsky, whose ‘Iconography and Iconology’ is still the most widely read statement of iconographic theory, argued that landscapes, still lifes and genre paintings did not have iconographical meanings. For him, iconography was a matter of decoding the attributes, stories and allegories of traditional art. So to those interested in images per se rather than high art, iconography has looked like a topic they can afford to ignore.

This lecture course will argue that images of all sorts, including photographs, can be said to have meanings, and that Panofsky was wrong to limit the scope of iconography. It will also try to show that the ways in which images acquire meanings vary, and require the careful analysis that linguists and philosophers are used to applying to language. Rather than confining itself to traditional attributes, stories and allegories, it will be concerned with works from around the world, including ancestor figures from Africa and Oceania, idols from Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica, European altarpieces and histories, and modern photographs and advertisements.

The course will be taught across five x two hour classes. After an introductory lecture devoted to basic terms, the course will go on to examine four principal kinds of ‘iconographic device’, the mechanism by which meaning comes to be attached to images: stipulation, attributes, narrative and illusion. Each session will have time for discussion.

Reading lists will be made available to registered students.

Mon-Fri 27-31 July 2020, 15:00-17:00

Registration and payment: 

Standard: £100 
Warburg staff & fellows/external students/unwaged: £90 
SAS/LAHP students: £80 
Warburg students: £50

If you are interested in booking a place but are unable to pay the fee, please contact

Find out more here.


Published by Roisin Astell

Roisin Astell received a First Class Honours in History of Art at the University of York (2014), under the supervision of Dr Emanuele Lugli. After spending a year learning French in Paris, Roisin then completed an MSt. in Medieval Studies at the University of Oxford (2016), where she was supervised by Professor Gervase Rosser and Professor Martin Kauffmann. In 2017, Roisin was awarded a CHASE AHRC studentship as a doctoral candidate at the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, under the supervision of Dr Emily Guerry.

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