The History of Iconography from Ancient to Modern Times

The History of Iconography from Ancient to Modern Times

In human communication, iconography, or the practice of making and interpreting icons, has a long and important history. Humans have been using symbols to express their thoughts, feelings, and convictions since they developed language.

Symbols like this have been employed in many fields, from religion and politics to art and literature. They have changed over time to reflect the values and customs of the adopted communities. Beginning with its use as a religious symbol in ancient civilizations, this article traces iconography’s development into its current form, which is ubiquitous in digital media.

What Is Iconography?

Whether applied to art, religion, or culture, the term “iconography” refers to the investigation or explanation of symbols, pictures, and icons. Deciphering the hidden meanings and significance of symbols and images like religious icons, heraldry, and emblems is at the heart of this field of study.

The study of iconography is common in art history and religious studies to decipher the deeper meanings of individual works of art and the symbols and imagery employed in such fields. It comes from the Greek words “eikon,” which means “picture,” and “graphein,” which means “to write.”

Where Is Iconography Present?

Iconography can be found in many different sectors, including religion, literature, advertising, and popular culture.

Iconography in art is quite common and is often used to evaluate and understand the many symbols and images that are featured in works of art. This method is utilized most frequently in the field of religious art, such as Christian art, Hindu art, and Buddhist art.

Types of Iconography

Icons can speak volumes; thus, there are different types of icons present in different norms and cultures, and they are:

●    Signs of Past Religions

Iconography may be traced back to its earliest days in the form of the employment of symbols in religious situations. Throughout human history, people of various religious views have employed various symbols to depict their rituals, gods, and core ideas.

In ancient Egypt, for instance, the Eye of Horus symbolized security and better health, whereas the Ankh symbolized eternal life.

The Holy Symbol of Yoga and Meditation in Hinduism, the symbol of Om is considered sacred since it is believed to reflect the universe’s music.

The use of icons in Christianity may be traced all the way back to the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century. It was believed that icons had supernatural powers. Thus, they were frequently utilized in religious ceremonies.

Icons depicting religious figures like Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were frequently embellished with expensive materials like gold and gems.

Several of the most influential people in the Christian religion believed that using icons in worship was a kind of idolatry, which sparked much debate. Despite this, the usage of icons finally gained widespread acceptance and continues to be an essential component of the majority of Christian churches to this day.

●    Political Symbols

Iconography’s long and illustrious history is replete with examples of significant contributions made by religious symbols and political symbols. Political groups, movements, and ideas can all be represented through various symbols.

They are frequently used during propaganda and intended to elicit emotional responses from those who watch them. For instance, during the Russian Revolution, the hammer and sickle were used as a symbol to symbolize the communist party, while, in Germany, the swastika was used as a symbol to represent the Nazi Party.

The United States of America flag is widely recognized as a potent political symbol. Since the time of the Revolutionary War, the flag has been utilized as a symbol of patriotism in the United States, and this practice continues to this day.

The flag’s design has been updated several times throughout the years, and the most recent iteration features fifty stars, one for each of the fifty states that comprise the union.

●    Symbols in Art

Icons have already played an important part in the development of art throughout history. In the world of art, certain concepts, ideas, or feelings can often be represented by a single icon.

For instance, the sign of the heart is frequently used to denote love and romance, but the symbol of the skull is frequently used to denote death and the passage of time.

The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci is widely regarded as one of the finest iconography illustrations in art history. The picture shows a man standing with his arms and legs extended out before him. His body is depicted as being enclosed by a circle and a square.

The picture has been construed in various ways, with some considering it a metaphor for the connection between humans and the cosmos.

●    Modern Era Iconography

Iconography has been given a new significance in recent years due to the rise of the digital era.

Icons are now an indispensable component of our everyday lives thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and applications that run on them. They are used to symbolize various operations and capabilities within mobile apps.

For example, tapping the camera icon on your mobile device’s screen will launch the camera app, while pressing the microphone icon will launch the audio recording app.

The design of these icons is really important because they need to be easily recognizable and straightforward to comprehend at a glance.

App designers use many methods to produce efficient icons, such as straightforward geometric forms and vivid hues.

Due to the increasing significance of app icon design, there are now entire businesses devoted to developing and testing icons for apps.

These are only a handful of the numerous categories of iconography. Iconography is an intriguing and diverse academic discipline that spans many facets of human history and culture.

Difference Between Ancient and Modern Iconography

Certain similarities can be seen between ancient and modern iconography, but substantial distinctions can be found between the two.

The employment of different kinds of materials is one of the most notable aspects that differentiates ancient iconography from modern iconography.

Icons were often constructed in ancient times using stuff like stone, wood, and metal. However, icons generated in current times may be created utilizing a broader range of materials, including digital media.

A further distinction can be made regarding the design and beauty of the iconography. Ancient iconography tended to be extremely stylized and symbolic, frequently featuring portrayals of the subject matter, which were either abstract or simplified.

On the other hand, contemporary iconography may be more realistic and precise, frequently including aspects of naturalism and realism in its compositions.

In addition, the historical milieu and demographics of the target audience for ancient and contemporary iconography are very different from one another.

Icons from antiquity were frequently produced for religious or spiritual reasons. They were used to convey intricate theological concepts and ideas to a society that was mainly illiterate at the time.

On the other hand, iconography in the modern day can be produced for a wide variety of functions, such as commercial, political propaganda, or simply aesthetic enjoyment.

Similarities Between Ancient and Modern Iconography

Certain symbols and pictures have survived from ancient times to today, though their significance and settings have evolved with time. The following are examples of commonalities between medieval and modern iconography.

Religious Symbols

Icons from all periods of history and cultures have utilized religious symbols to symbolize ideas important to their adherents. For instance, the cross, a universally known religious symbol, has been used to represent Christianity in art from antiquity to the present day.

Human Shape

The human shape is shown similarly in both ancient and contemporary imagery. Both have employed human depictions to communicate various feelings, concepts, and cultural norms.

The ancient Greeks, for instance, expressed their cultural values of beauty and strength by depicting idealized human forms in their sculptures.


Animals have been employed as symbols in iconography since ancient times. Prevalent in ancient Egyptian art were depictions of cats, lions, and snakes, representing various aspects of power, protection, and divinity.

Modern iconography extensively uses animal symbols to express human values like bravery, independence, and loyalty.


Ancient iconography and contemporary iconography share a common use of color. Both have found that different hues convey different feelings, attitudes, and cultural values. For instance, in ancient and contemporary art, blue has long been a symbol of spirituality, tranquility, and peace.


The portrayal of nature is another trait shared by ancient and contemporary iconography. Both have used landscapes and flora to communicate abstract concepts and moral values.

For instance, mountains, rivers, and clouds served as symbols of the balance and harmony of nature in ancient Chinese art.


From the earliest known religious symbols to the graphical user interfaces of today’s digital apps, iconography has always played an important part in human history.

Icons have been utilized to represent various concepts, including thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Thus, they will always be a part of our existence.