*This article is part of Arts Help's Art Theory series.

Iconography is a visual shorthand, a way of communicating to the viewer the specifics of representation in an image. Unlike the more general and allusive visual language of symbolism, iconography is more directly referential: where symbolism is vague, iconography is specific. The colour red, for example, is often used broadly to symbolize passion, anger, or other intense feelings; by contrast, the deep blue colour called lapis lazuli is used in religious paintings as an icon to identify the Virgin Mary. Icons are typically more culturally storied and less psychological than widely-used symbols, but are often derived from common images. Lapis lazuli is a naturally blue stone made from several minerals, first recorded for decorative use in Egypt, 4000 BCE, and most commonly mined in Afghanistan; by the 5th century CE. The stone was prized for the colour blue, which had become associated with divinity for its rare occurrence in nature. Artists began frequently painting the Virgin Mary’s robes in lapis lazuli pigments, with blue symbolising preciousness and sacredness; the colour came to represent Mary herself.

The Union of Water with Earth

Iconography is seen most often in a religious art context up to the early Renaissance, after which the use of icons to identify figures in political and mythological images became common practice. In Peter Paul RubensThe Union of Water with Earth (1618), the title allegorically portrays a wedding between Neptune (god of the sea) and an Earth goddess commonly thought to be Cybele. There are no primary sources to authenticate a canonical wedding between the two, so the identity of Cybele has been speculated to be the amalgamation of several Earth goddesses as imagined by the artist. The scholarly identification of Cybele is generally agreed upon due to the presence of the large feline, in this case a tiger, at the bottom left of the painting. Cybele is typically depicted with a tambourine, a libation dish, and a pair of lions – the single tiger in this case is an inconclusive sign of the goddess’s identity given that it was Dionysus, who kept company with tigers. More clearly identifiable is the image of Neptune, who is almost exclusively depicted as a robust elderly man holding a trident; and his son, Triton, who is most often shown as a merman with the tail of a fish, the upper body of a man, and with a conch shell in his possession. Though Titan’s lower half is not visible, the absence of which, along with the conch shell and his upward-facing gaze towards the figure of Neptune is enough to identify him.

The Union of Water with Earth, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

The Ambassadors

A notable secular example of the use of symbolic clues used in identification is the much debated The Ambassadors (1533), by Hans Holbein the Younger. Since the pictorial clues associated with the men in the painting are more personal than canonical, the identity of the ambassadors remains puzzling. In general, the two figures are thought by many scholars to represent the worlds of science and religion, as only one of the figures is wearing clerical attire, and the assortment of scientific instruments on the table between them include a hymn book. The broken string on the lute is thought of by some to represent discord between the scientific and religious figures, while others suggest that the lute in tandem with the open hymn book signifies reparation of harmony. Mortality, the great equalizer of science and religion, is represented in the painting’s most conspicuous of symbols: the anamorphic skull. Bizarrely stretched to the point of being unrecognizable, the skull is thought to compositionally represent the underworld for its placement in the bottom third of the painting; the Earth represented by the middle section, the table layers; and the top part of the painting representing the heavens, occupied by the celestial globe.

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533

Symbolism aside, a more iconographical and direct association has been made of the figures in the painting. Art critic Sidney Colvin declared in 1890 that the figure on the left is Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to Henry VIII in 1533. This interpretation is widely accepted, in part due to the possible iconographic reference to de Dinteville’s land tenure as marked on the map of France in the painting’s globe. Art historian Mary F. S. Hervey wrote that the man on the left is Georges de Selve, a conclusion reached due to historical timing and the recorded connection between the two men in letters. Hervey’s research is solidified by the iconography of the inscriptions on both the book held by the man on the right, and the dagger held by the man on the left, identifying their ages as twenty-five and twenty-nine respectively. These ages seem to match with those of de Dinteville and De Selve at the time, leading most scholars to accept Hervey’s theory as fact.

The Arnolfini Portrait

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

Perhaps the most complex and frequently debated work of iconographic art is the Jan van Eyck painting most commonly referred to as The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) –  though many interpretations of the work have resulted in several different variations on the title. For nearly a century, art historians commonly agreed that the figures in the double portrait represent Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife Jeanne Cenami, until 1997, when it was uncovered that the two were not married until 1447, long after the date the painting was created following the death of van Eyck. This finding has resulted in the myriad of suggested possibilities, each with seemingly iconographic evidence to support it. Some claim that the painting depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini’s second wife, and that this painting was meant to act as a marriage certificate, though the validity of this theory is questionable, and scholars like Edwin Hall believe it more likely that the painting is not of a marriage but of a betrothal. The counterargument here is that a non-married woman would be portrayed with her hair down, suggesting that this woman is already married. A recent theory by Margaret Koster posits that the painting depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his first wife, Costanza Trenta, who died during childbirth in 1444. The snuffed candles and her husband’s black clothing are said to indicate that the woman was recently deceased, and the presence of a lap dog indicates marital faithfulness. The hand gesture supports the notion that this couple is married, as joining hands in a painting is a common icon of marriage, and the possibility that the painting depicts the woman’s pregnancy would support the theory of this being the late Constanza Trenta. It was, however, common to paint wealthy women with an excess of layered fabrics, or to paint women with the appearance of pregnancy, as the ability to bear children was seen as the ideal state of femininity. Whether or not the woman in the painting is pregnant, the carved figure of Saint Margaret, patron saint of pregnancy, can be seen to support Koster’s theory, as an icon of Costanza Trenta’s death.

The variety of points and counterpoints to support the remarkably high number of theories surrounding the identities of the figures in this painting leave little chance of a universal agreement between scholars. Icons and their meanings can be polarizing for some, but are most often a bemusing sort of puzzle and an intriguing topic of discussion. For all their mysteries, paintings like that of van Eyck inspire the kind of intense debate that fascinates the public, and creates a lasting interest in art.

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