Thursday, December 3, 2009

Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography

The Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art is an omnibus reference source for the themes and motives of Western art. So much visual art over the millennia has used allegory and symbolism to express emotion and meaning, but not all of this rich thematic material is always readily or fully understood by the uninitiated viewer of art. Much of the artistic symbolism is drawn from Western religious traditions and mythology.

This two volume set consists of around 100 entries written by various scholar about particular themes. As the book’s editor writes in the introduction, the purpose of each entry is to “trace the various interpretations given to a theme during different periods and cultures to account for varying social and political beliefs.”

Many of the chapters relate to the human life cycle –“Birth/Childbirth,” “Marriage/Betrothal,” “Death” – and to eternal aspects of the human condition like “Avarice,” “Betrayal,” “Ecstasy,” “Honor/Honoring,” “Imagination/Creativity,” “Laughter,” Melancholy,” “Misfortune,” and “Sacrifice.” There are also other entries about extremes of human behavior like “Beheading/Decapitation,” “Damned Souls,” “Evil Eye,” “Madness,” “Martyrdom,” “Nightmare,” “Temptation,” and “Witchcraft/Sorcery.”

Each entry includes an essay reviewing the depiction of the concept in antiquity, mythology, religion and up through its contemporary meanings. Representative presentations of the themes are presented in “Selected Works of Art” passage at the end of each chapter. These are grouped by time period and provide information about the location of the art work. “Further reading” provides a bibliography of resources that explain and develop each theme in greater depth.

The end of the second volume includes a number of useful indexes. First there is an “Index of ancient mythological and historical personages, places, and concepts.” This is followed by an “Index of Judeo-Christian Personages, Places and Concepts.” For those looking to find discussion of visual representations from the Old and New Testaments there is also an index to chapters and verse of the Bible and the themes covered in those passages. There is also an “Index of other cultures, religions, and mythologies,” though these receive far less extensive treatment than the Egypto-Greco-Roman / Judeo-Christian traditions in this book.

There are two indexes to creative artists and their works: an “Index of artists and works of art” and an “Index of authors, literary texts, composers, filmmakers, and folktales.” Finally, and perhaps most essentially, there is an “Index to other names and terms.” Here one can find references to the concrete objects, concepts, or types of personages or animals that are subsumed under the wider themes of the book.

Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography will assist students or art lovers trying to understand the allegory or symbolism of an art work. It may also help the student of psychology realize the variety of meanings and manifestations of human behavior. This is a reference book that repays repeated study and consultation.

"Tailpiece, or the Bathos" by William Hogarth depicting "Order/Chaos." Source: Hogarth's Works, with Life and Anecdotal Descriptions of his Pictures by John Ireland and John Nichols (Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1883).

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