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Iconography and Iconology in World Religions

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The Great Mother

The Great Mother

Iconography and iconology are interdependent sciences concerned with the visual arts and architecture as reflections of a culture. Broadly speaking, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. In the strict sense, iconography classifies and describes the attributes of persons, ideas, or institutions as they appear in art (for example, the style and use of two keys as the symbol of St. Peter), and iconology explains their significance (for example, the reason for the choice of the keys). Both may deal with secular art but are especially associated with religious art. Since popular movements in the past were rarely literate, many religions owe much of their appeal to images. Often the iconographic forms of one religion will be adapted by another.

Ancient Polytheisms

The religion of the Great Mother, which flourished in western Asia in Neolithic times, was reflected in pottery figurines concerned with fertility—heavy-breasted and deep-thighed females and bulls. In the Fertile Crescent after 3000 B.C., numerous local divinities associated with cosmic powers were represented in bas-relief and sculpture—at first by nonhuman symbols (such as an ibex for the water god, Enki, and a bundle of reeds for the fertility goddess, Inana) and later in human form. Lion-bodied, human-headed, winged sphinxes represented minor deities. The many-storied ziggurats, symbolizing the planets, were believed to be the earthly homes of the gods.

Egyptian gods, also having a mixture of local and cosmic significance, appear in bas-relief, sculpture, and painting with human bodies and animal heads, indicating their origins as "totem" animals, believed to be the divine ancestors of clans. Examples are Ptah, the creator, in the form of a bull; the cow-headed Hathor, a mother goddess; and the hawk-headed Re, the sun-god, identified with the pharaoh, who was also symbolized by sphinxes without wings. The Egyptian fascination with death as the gift of new life is reflected in the pyramids (royal tombs) and in tomb paintings portraying life in the next world.

Greek and Roman gods were generally represented by statues or reliefs of ideally beautiful men and women. They were often associated with symbols, such as the helmet of Athena, the war goddess, or the lyre of Apollo, god of the arts.

Judaism and Islam

The Zoroastrian god of light and truth, Ahura Mazda.

The Zoroastrian god of light and truth, Ahura Mazda.

Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Islam, struggling against belief in a multiplicity of older deities worshiped in anthropomorphic or zoomorphic form, opposed such portrayals of their supreme gods. The Zoroastrian god of light and truth, Ahura Mazda, was worshiped in the altar fire in an empty hall and was indicated in art by a winged sun disk.

The making of graven images was forbidden to the Jews by the Law of Moses, which was reinforced by the triumph of austere piety at the Council of Jamnia (about 100 A.D.). What has been called "the repressed sense of visual beauty among the Jews" found its outlet chiefly in ornaments connected with the Scroll of the Law, such as silver crowns, breastplates, pointers, finials, and embroidered curtains. These objects often bore the basic symbols of Judaism—the menorah (7-branched candlestick), the two tablets of the Law, the lion of the tribe of Judah, and later the 6-pointed star of David.

Islam is, if anything, stricter than Judaism in proscribing the depiction of living beings in religious art. Mosques, however, are almost inevitably of great architectural beauty and are decorated with geometric designs and with texts from the Koran in the ancient Kufic script. Religious usage determines the characteristics of a mosque—minarets (towers) for the call to prayer; fountain or well for ritual ablutions; mihrab (niche) in the direction of Mecca; and mimbar (pulpit). The crescent, once a symbol of the Turks, has come to be associated with Islam.



At first the church, continuing the Jewish distrust of iconology and fearful of persecution, resisted any attempt to picture Christ. It illustrated His natures by symbols—a lamb (an ancient Hebrew "totemistic" symbol); Orpheus (a classical symbol); the lion of Judah; the Good Shepherd; fish, phoenix, or pelican; His monogram; and later the cross. However, the early Christians, asked to imagine the historical Jesus making His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, for example, found it nearly impossible not to picture Him, to think of Him as looking like something. Sometimes, under classical influence, they represented Him as an Apollo-like youth. In characteristic Byzantine representations, hedged about with the Biblical caution (Isaiah 53:2) that Christ must have "no beauty that we should desire him," He is a calm, bearded, older man, often the Pantocrator enthroned and holding a book, symbolizing His divine office as ruler and teacher.

Gradually Biblical figures and saints, distinguished by haloes and personal symbols, such as the lion of St. Mark, appeared in Christian painting, mosaics, stained glass, fabrics, and eventually sculpture, long feared as especially conducive to idolatry. Crucifixes, portraying Christ on the cross, reluctantly adopted from the 7th century on, gave Christianity some of its best and worst art. Churches were often built in the form of a cross and focused on the celebration of the chief sacrament at the altar.

Oriental Religions

The vast array of gods in Hindu sculpture and painting often have several heads and arms making conventional gestures (mudras) and holding certain objects, such as a lotus, the whole figure symbolizing different aspects of the single divinity they share. The kindly Vishnu appears frequently in two popular incarnations—Prince Rama and the hero Krishna. The awesome Shiva may be represented by a figure dancing out the rhythm of the universe or by the lingam, a phallic symbol.

Buddhist inconography includes the Bodhi tree, under which Buddha attained enlightenment; the Wheel of the Law, which he taught; and the lotus, which is the universe that he illumines. Buddha, at first represented by such symbols, later appears as a serene monk whose canonically determined features and gestures symbolize his exceptional powers. Important Buddhist monuments are the stupas, great dome-shaped structures of Indian origin, containing relics and symbolizing the death of Buddha. These inspired the pagodas of China and Japan.

In the rich iconography of Chinese art the basic Taoist symbol is a circle composed of two complementary curved figures—yin (darkness, female) and yang (light, male), indicating the union of primal forces to create the universe. The eight trigrams, combinations of broken (yin) and solid (yang) lines, represent natural phenomena. Especially popular are images of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.


whyjoker (author) on May 12, 2013:

Hello guys, I just wanna say: thanks a lot!!! I'm so happy :)

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on May 11, 2013:

Hello whyjoker. This was an interesting and insightful hub. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing!

Monica Kay from Pennsylvania on May 11, 2013:

Congratulations. Very interesting hub.

Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on May 11, 2013:

Very interesting hub. Congrats on the HOTD also.

Shariful Islam from Bangladesh on May 11, 2013:

Well articulated, helpful, informative and highly resourceful hubs. Am glad to be read your hub. Congratulations on the hub of the day! I

Khen Ramos from Philippines on May 11, 2013:

Congratulations on the hub of the day! I learned a lot from this hub and it helped me see the icons more than what we normally see from it. Different people actually have different perspectives on what they think they mean don't you think? But nevertheless, I learned more, by reading less(I'm talking about the books they have for this stuff) Voted up! And congratulations once again, hope to read more from you :)

Jared Miles from Australia on May 11, 2013:

A very interesting Hub whyjoker. While I was somewhat aware of the iconography in Christianity, you've taught me a lot about Buddhism and polytheistic religions in particular.

Congratulations on being selected for a 'Hub of the Day', you definitely deserve it. I'll gladly vote up.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on April 28, 2013:

Religion was intended to bring spiritual enlightenment to humanity through all the mainstream religions of the world even though they may be coming from opposite belief systems concerning the source of all.

Male and female ,yin and yang both have similarities when it comes to religious beliefs and traditions.Some being based on female characteristics and others on male characteristics .Some on both male and female characteristics which seems to be more balanced than one or the other.