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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