Learning to see Iconography

Iconography is the tradition or convention of associating meaning with an image. It typically refers to the symbolic representation of subjects such as religion, politics, or science. In this regard, the composition and details of an image, as predetermined by societal traditions or rules, serve to identify the meaning of the image.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was an American philosopher who identified a methodology for the classification of signs, symbols, and icons known as “Sign Theory.” Essentially, this theory categorizes an image as a symbol, icon, or index based on how closely the image correlates visually to its subject:

· A symbol’s meaning is determined by societal convention or governance more so than visual cues (e.g., traffic signs are determined by the Department of Transportation).

· An icon’s meaning is embodied by the image itself (e.g., a photograph is an image of its subject, which could be a person, a city landscape, etc.). A skeuomorph (such as an emoji of an envelope) is an example of an icon since the image looks exactly like its subject.

· An index’s meaning is inferred by its image (e.g., thunder indirectly represents lightening).

The following are example of various images and their meanings:

Courtesy: The U.S. National Park Service

The Lincoln Memorial is an example of an icon. The statue depicted here from the Memorial is a direct visual representation of the 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln. The statue and memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is a representation of Lincoln’s stature in American history.

Courtesy: Earthsky.org

This is a photo from the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in July 1969. During this and all subsequent Apollo moon landings, footprints were created by the astronauts as they walked on the moon’s surface. The footprints serve as an indexical sign of those NASA missions and American technological advances in space exploration. Interestingly, these footprints will never fade due to the lack of atmospheric wind or other weather conditions on the moon.

This is a symbol of the mathematical concept known as infinity. This concept dates back to the ancient Greeks, who expressed infinity with the word ‘apeiron.’ The image that today is associated with infinity (the number 8 turned sideways) was created in 1657 by English mathematician John Wallis (1616–1703).


TIME Magazine. “Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Moon.” http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1929328_1929325_1929284,00.html

Rucker, Rudy. “Infinity.” Encyclopedia Britannica. March 1, 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/infinity-mathematics

“John Wallis: English Mathematician.” Encyclopedia Britannica. July 20, 1998. https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wallis

Byrd, Deborah. “Today in Science: First Footsteps on Moon.” July 20, 2016. http://earthsky.org/space/this-date-in-science-first-human-footsteps-on-the-moon

National Park Service. “The Lincoln Memorial.” https://www.nps.gov/Linc/index.htm

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