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Iconclass Iconographical Vocabulary

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General characteristics (size, coverage) of the vocabulary

Iconclass contains 28000 ordered items, which can be used to describe the subjects of an image (persons, event, abstract ideas). Iconclass is currently owned and managed by the Dutch institute RKD.

Language(s) in which the vocabulary is provided

Complete versions are available for English, German, French, Italian, partial translation for Finnish and Norvegian

Vocabulary extract

For subject 25F “animals”, orginal display in the browsing interface:

2 Nature
  25 earth, world as celestial body
    25F animals
      25F(+) KEY
      25F1 groups of animals
      25F9 mis-shapen animals; monsters
      25FF fabulous animals (sometimes wrongly called 'grotesques'); 'Mostri' (Ripa)

There are other displays, focusing on the vocabulary alone, e.g. for 25F

Additional to the info above, we would also have for 25F:

      Systematic references: 34 man and animal
      Keywords: nature, earth, world, animal

In other subjects, you have other kind of information, e.g. at 11H:

11 H saints
Double Letter : 11 HH female saint


11H  saints      
  11H(...)  male saints (with NAME)      
    11H(...)  STRUCTURAL DIGIT  
       11H(...)0        male saint represented in a group
       11H(...)2        early life of male saint
       11H(...)1        specific aspects ~ male saint

Structure explanation

The main building blocks of Iconclass are subjects, used to describe the subject of images. An Iconclass subject consists of a notation (an alphanumeric identier used for annotation) and a textual correlate (e.g. “25F9 mis-shapen animals; monsters”). Subjects are organized in nine hierarchical trees. Other features are associative cross-reference links (systematic reference in the example), as well as mechanisms for subject specialisation at indexing time: keys, queue of keys, structural digits, double letters and bracketed text.

Use of bracketed text allow for adhoc collection-specific extension of iconclass. For exemple, you can specialize “11H(…) saints” into any kind of saint you find in an image, even though not present in standard Iconclass, like 11H(VALENTINE).

Keys are (organized) lists of items that can be applied to subjects at indexing time to add an extra meaning to them. 25FF has an active key list, which is attached to it and accessible via the hierarchical browser (it is itself organized as a tree).

    25FF fabulous animals (sometimes wrongly called 'grotesques'); 'Mostri' (Ripa)
      25FF(+) KEY
        25FF(+0)        variant          
        25FF(+1)        parts, limbs and organs larger than normal
        25FF(+2)        limbs and organs smaller than normal     
        25FF(+3)        parts, limbs and organs missing          
        25FF(+4)        parts, limbs and organs in greater number than normal    
        25FF(+5)        parts, limbs and organs in unusual places        
        25FF(+6)        deformed parts, limbs and organs         
        25FF(+7)        aspects of parts, limbs and organs of fabulous animals, not meant or mentioned under KEY (+1) to (+6)
      25FF1     groups of fabulous animals       
      25FF2     fabulous animals ~ mammals

The notation of any element of this key can be appended to the one of a class specializing 25FF, adding a shade of meaning to it. For example 25FF2(+11) would refer to an mammal having a greater number of parts, limbs or organs than normal.

The key mechanism is augmented with a queue-of-key mechanism. As 25FF comes with a key list, these keys can themseleves come with queues:

   25FF fabulous animals (sometimes wrongly called 'grotesques'); 'Mostri' (Ripa)
      25FF(+) KEY
        25FF(+7)        aspects of parts, limbs and organs of fabulous animals, not meant or mentioned under KEY (+1) to (+6)
          25FF(+7)      QUEUE OF KEY
             25FF(+70)          variant          
             25FF(+71)  animals used symbolically
                25FF(+712)      heraldic animals         
             25FF(+72)  sex and age of animals; propagation of animals   

In such a setting, 25FF2(+712) would refer to a specific aspect of a fabulous animal used in heraldry.

Structural digits have similar nature and role as keys: you can synthesize “11H(VALENTINE)2” from “11H(VALENTINE)” and “11H(...)early life of male saint” to index an image which specifically denotes the early days of the saint.

Finally, duplicating the upper case letter of a notation allows to alter its meaning in a pre-defined way, often turning it into some kind of opposite: 11H saint can be transformed into 11 HH female saint. In Iconclass, one knows for each subject whether its letter can be doubled or not, and which is the meaning implied by the duplication.

Additionally, subjects have (lexical) keywords that are used to access them: 25F9 is thus linked to “monster” and “shape”, amongst others. Keywords form a network of their own, a keyword possibly refering to another by several means:

Software applications used to create and/or maintain the vocabulary, features lacking for the case

Maintenance of vocabulary is done via manual edition of semi-structured source files.

Management of changes

As a general rule, the standard version shall only be changed in a conservative way, not modifying the existing subjects.

Additional references

Information on Iconclass history and content, as well as the vocabulary itself, can be accessed at