Iconography: an irreverent introduction | Mechanics' Institute

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Iconography: an irreverent introduction

I have always had an amateur's interest in fine art. I never took a course in art appreciation but I have learned as much as I can from books and from a friend with an M.F.A. who acts as my personal docent when we visit museums together. I always wondered about paintings, from medieval times to the present, that included numerous objects for no apparent reason or people making unusual (to me, anyway) gestures. What do they mean? Why did this artist include a broken wheel in this painting? How do we know that baby is Jesus? What's the funny-looking "thing" that looks like a feather duster that you see people holding in old paintings all the time? You can find answers to these and lots more questions in the Colons' book, newly arrived at the Library. The objects in paintings that mystify many of us in the 21st century had symbolic meanings very commonly known centuries ago, in other words: iconography. The authors include helpful lists in the appendices. But the real fun comes in the picture by picture descriptions and explanations that make sense out of scores of paintings included in this book (and by extension, hundreds or thousands of others not inlcuded in the book that contain the same iconography). They limited their selection of the art works to those that have big, high definition graphics on the World Wide Web easily found with a DuckDuckGo or Google image search of the artist's name and title of the painting. This way they kept the size (and cost) of the book small and inexpensive. 

The whimsical writing makes this far from the usual dry academic tome. For example, to explain a painting that includes a man incongruously standing with a hatchet sticking out of his head they write: 

The painting of St. Peter the martyr is a stunner. In fact, he looks quite stunned as well. A 13th century Dominican priest from Verona, he was assassinated -- you guessed it -- with a hatchet through the skull. He was fast tracked to sainthood in only 11 months -- an ecclesiastical record.

Check out this book for more of the same -- plus the answers to my questions above. 

Posted on Feb. 7, 2019 by Steven Dunlap