WebDef: Iconography

I·con·o·gra·phy /ik?'nägr?fe/ – Noun: Visual imagery used to convey meaning beyond the surface level. Also, the identification, description, and classification of signs and symbols.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is the basis of the art of iconography, the conveying of meaning through symbolic means, beyond or without the aid of written words. The world of iconography encompasses symbol, image, and to a lesser extent color, when used to convey meaning. The effectiveness of communication through iconography depends on the existence of a shared context, or shared understanding, of the meanings expressed.

Why Learn Iconography?

Have you ever tried looking at a street sign in a language that you know and NOT reading the words? Very hard to do! The world is a lot more rich because you do know the words. In a similar way, literacy in iconography can open up your eyes to all the subtle symbolic communication that is taking place all around us.

It is empowering to know what subtle and subliminal messages are being communicated and received on a subconscious level. Marketing firms use such communication all the time, and so do leaders of countries. In one of history's darkest chapters, Hitler and his followers used iconography and color to influence the masses. One example was their use of color to fan the flames of race hatred. Hitler chose a color that was already subliminally associated with the devil in people's minds, and made people wear it, helping turn them into scapegoats. This use of color was purposeful; it helped to foster an unconscious negative association in people's minds. Few people recognized it, at the time, but many fell under his sway. The knowledge helps us maintain our freedom to choose without undue influence. It also allows us to appreciate great subtlety in art that we might otherwise miss.

The Ichthus

During persecution of Christians under the Roman empire (54 A.D. – 307 A.D.) by people like Paul, the Ichthus was a secret symbol of Christianity. Wherever Christianity has been illegal (even 20th century Russia and China) Christians have had to meet in secret to avoid persecution. Christians have needed a way to know if they were in the company of friend or foe, so a Christian might casually draw a single arc of the fish to see if the other person recognized and drew the rest of it. Ichthus is the word for fish, and the initials Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, and Sigma can stand for Iesous Christos, Theou Uios, Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). But the fish itself is also a very meaningful symbol. The fish symbol, a symmetrical form, can be created from two equal circles, when the center of each lies on the circumference of the other. This shape, also known as a Vesica Piscis or mandorla, has mystical and mathematical significance. Pythagoreans noticed the width to height ratio of the shape is the square root of three, 265:153, the best approximation possible with small whole numbers. The number 153 is a pretty special number as well; that's the number of fish that Jesus is told to have caused to be caught (John 21:11). Symbolically the ichthus fish can be seen as the intersection of heaven and earth, and as such it can help remind us of Jesus' role as as a bridge for us between those two spheres, now and forever.

The Wheel

Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, or rather Iesous Christos, Theou Uios, Soter, can also be found in the spokes of a wheel.

Jesus in Other Symbols

Jesus has been represented as a grape vine from a reference in John (15:5) which leads us back to the early Biblical times when people referred to vineyards as scriptures and grape vines as teachers, so Jesus being a true grape vine makes sense in this context as well as the context of the bread and wine of the covenant. He has also been represented as Alpha/Omega, or beginning and end. He has also been represented as a lamb because of his sacrifice, and as a shepherd, from his parable about the shepherd who would leave 99 sheep to go searching for the one who is lost. Later after Christianity became an official state religion, Jesus was shown in more emperor-like form, or a sun god: Christ Helios. And when conquerors introduced Christianity to new continents, they might select a Pieta, or other images of Christ's suffering, to put across the idea that suffering should be expected and endured.

It is said that once something has been seen, it cannot be unseen. Once we begin to see and recognize the iconography around us, we enjoy a world that is richer, more nuanced, and more contextualized. We are also more in control, as we recognize the reason behind the choices in these images, and exercise our own good judgment in selecting the imagery we use, in our own communications.

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WebDefs – simple definitions of key terms relating to ministry and healing arts – are a regular feature of NHM Ministrants. Offered (where applicable) in conjunction with select key scriptural passages and analysis, WebDefs can be a useful starting place for exploring a topic of interest.

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