Examples of Iconography

, Staff Writer
Updated November 24, 2020
woman shops for crosses iconography example
    Woman shop crosses antique store
    Tony Anderson / DigitalVision / Getty
    Used under Getty Images license

Iconography is the use of images and symbols to portray a subject, movement or ideal. It can also be the use of certain symbols that convey specific genres such as religious iconography, iconography in art and iconography in film and television. Discover a number of iconography examples related to religion, art, entertainment, and other aspects of life.

Religious Iconography Examples

The phrase religious iconography refers to the use of imagery to convey religious concepts and ideas or to depict religious events. Individual pieces of religious art can be referred to as icons. Additionally, certain images are used within artwork related to religion to convey specific or symbolic meaning.

  • The Virgin Mary is most often shown wearing a flowing blue robe. This is symbolic of heaven and her spirituality. The purity of the Virgin Mary is shown with lilies in a vase and a bowl or urn of water.
  • The cross has been a religious icon since the second century and represents Christianity. A crucifix, which is a cross with Jesus on it, represents Catholicism. Other Christian faiths do not depict Jesus on the cross in their iconography.
  • The Holy Spirit is often shown as a dove. This comes from the story of Christ's baptism when the Holy Spirit came from heaven like a dove. It is also used to represent an individual's soul.
  • Jesus Christ is sometimes represented with a fish symbol, which comes from the Greek word ichthus. A lamb is sometimes used to convey the symbolism of Jesus and/or his love. This is related to the fact that he is referred to as the lamb of God.
  • Religious figures such as gods, saints, prophets, and martyrs are often immortalized in statues, which become icons to those who follow the faith with which they are associated.
  • Divine beings are often depicted in human form in religious iconography, whereas demons or even spirits are portrayed as menacing animals.
  • Images of books and tablets are used to reflect the word of God in religious iconography.
  • In faiths that subscribe to the Old Testament, apples are symbolic in religious iconography. They symbolize both original sin and temptation offered by Satan.
  • A halo, which is a circle of light surrounding a person, is widely used in religious paintings to denote a holy person or saint. Asian religious art uses flames, called mandorla, around the body or head.
  • Many churches have stained glass windows that use visual images to tell stories related to their faith. In Catholic churches, these windows often feature iconography depicting the stations of the cross.

Examples of Iconography in Art

In the context of art, iconography refers to the images and symbols used in a work of art. Iconography provides insight into the cultural and historical context of a work of art, as well as its symbolism and theme.

  • A red poppy is an icon for remembering those killed in wars, especially in World War I. Poppies are worn as a way of sharing in the grief felt for those lost in war.
  • Lotus flowers are common symbolic imagery in Asian art. Because these flowers open every morning and close every evening, they are viewed as symbols of birth and rebirth.
  • Red is considered to be symbolic of death, so it is incorporated into works of art with themes associated with death and dying.
  • The shape of a heart is widely used to symbolize love and romance.
  • There are several symbols for peace, including the peace sign and holding the first two fingers in a "V" shape. In ancient times the olive branch was used, as well as the dove.
  • Andy Warhol's work tends to include real-life cultural symbols. For example, he is known for painting Campbell's Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe.
  • The distinctive brushstrokes of Monet, Pissarro and other impressionist painters quickly convey the style and period in which their work was completed.
  • The well-known work of art Whistler's Mother is recognized as being symbolic of the Great Depression, largely due to iconography (black apparel, stark surroundings, sad expression) focused on the hardship of the times.
  • Young children are often included in works of art as symbols of innocence, purity and new life.

Examples of Iconography in Film and Television

Iconography is an important part of film and television shows, with certain visual images or symbols used to convey key information about the story, genre or timeframe. Iconography provides visual cues as to the genre, plot or theme.

  • Captain America's shield is an example of iconography for the superhero genre specifically representing Marvel and The Avengers.
  • Icons for the Western genre of films includes ten-gallon hats, spurs, horses, saloons, guns, jails, and the badge of the sheriff.
  • Icons for horror movies may include haunted houses and contrasting shadows and light in darkened places.
  • The style of apparel worn by characters immediately reveals the timeframe in which a movie or show is set.
  • Bad guys often wear black to symbolize evil. Leather jackets, often black, are worn by rebels or tough guys.
  • On crime shows, you can immediately tell who the male detectives are because they almost always wear suits and ties regardless of what the weather is.
  • Science fiction movies have high-tech gadgets and automobiles that fly. Apparel in these films tends to be very futuristic and form-fitting.

Iconography Examples in Everyday Life

Iconography can be found in many other contexts. Basically, any visual depiction that is used to convey cultural or historical context or symbolic meaning represents an example of iconography.

  • Imagery of food specific to a certain region is an example of iconography. If you go on vacation to New Orleans, you'll see postcards depicting things like beignets, muffulettas and crawfish.
  • Countries have symbols including birds, animals and plants. Many countries have chosen the eagle as their national animal, including the United States, Egypt, Serbia, Austria, the Philippines, Nigeria, and Panama.
  • Iconography includes the use of flowers. Examples include the calla lily for death or grief, the red rose for love and passion, and mistletoe for love and affection (as used by kissing under it).
  • Peace lilies are a popular choice for funerals, as they symbolize peace and comfort while also providing grieving families with a plant they can keep and nurture. There are a number of other symbolic plants for grief and sympathy.
  • Flags can symbolize a particular country or state. All of the visual elements of a flag, even the colors, have meaning. Red often represents bravery, blood or revolution; blue can mean freedom, peace or justice; green may symbolize agriculture, earth or Islam; and white may represent purity, innocence or snow.
  • The iconography of flags is not limited to countries or states. For example, the rainbow flag offers powerful iconography symbolizing that people of all sexual orientations and genders are welcome.
  • The Statue of Liberty is a symbol (icon) of freedom, friendship, immigration and enlightenment.
  • An image of a chalkboard is a nearly universal image for schools and education, even though they have been replaced with more modern whiteboards in many schools.

A Visual Shorthand

Iconography provides a shortcut way to communicate. Over time an icon can become an easy way to describe a large idea in a very abbreviated way. Now that you have a better understanding of what iconography is, expand your horizons by exploring the related concept of iconicity.