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The science of the description, history, and interpretation of the traditional representations of God, the saints and other sacred subjects in art. Almost from the beginning the Church has employed the arts as potent means of instruction and edification. In the first centuries the walls of the catacombs were decorated with paintings and mosaics (see CATACOMBS), and in all later times churches have lent their walls, ceilings, and windows as well as their altars, furniture, and liturgical vessels and books, to be adorned with scenes from the Old and the New Testament, from the lives and legends of the saints, and even from old mythologies, modified, of course, and harmonized with Christian teaching. (For the details of Christian iconography see the articles, DIPTYCHS; IVORIES; METAL-WORK; MOSAICS; PAINTING; RELIQUARIES; SCULPTURE; WINDOWS; WOOD-CARVING.)

The object of iconography is to give the history of these various representations, to note their prevalence or absence at some particular time or in some particular place, to compare those of different lands and different periods, to explain the personal or historical, and to interpret the symbolical. Studied thus, they have an important historical and dogmatic interest, as they attest the unity of ecclesiastical tradition and the faith of the ages in which they were produced.

Special articles dealing with subjects of Christian iconography, besides those already mentioned, are ANCHOR; DOVE; EARLY SYMBOLS OF EUCHARIST; SYMBOLISM OF FISH; LAMB; NIMBUS. See also ECCLESIASTICAL ART.


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The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

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