Understanding Iconography

Understanding Iconography

In Media Studies we see iconography as part of genre, and particularly film genre. Students need to know the term and how it is used. It is quite a complex concept, that informs image analysis and the deconstruction of genre. Iconography originates from the study of art. 

In Europe in the15th & 16th centuries artists creating work of a Christian nature would look up reference books to check the colours, composition, hand gestures, poses and facial expressions that past masters traditionally used, because they conveyed the most significant meaning to the ordinary person.

These meaningful images came to be known as iconic, and their use is iconography.

For example most paintings of the Madonna, including modern ones, show her in a robe of deep blue. The Virgin wears a blue robe, the colour symbolic of heaven and a reminder of the Virgin’s role as Queen of Heaven. This colour came to be an icon for her role as a spiritual mother who has dignity and religious importance. The blue robe is part of the iconography of this form of art throughout the centuries.

Right – Madonna and Child by Donielle Boal fineartamerica.com/featured/madonna-and-child…

Left – Madonna and Five Angels by Botticelli


Steve Campsall’s definition of iconography is useful. (Steve Campsall – Media – GCSE Film Analysis Guide (3) – SJC)

Iconography is an important aspect of genre. We expect to see certain objects on screen when we see a particular genre, for example, in a Western, dusty lonely roads, saloon bars, cowboy hats and horses, jails, sheriffs badges, guns, etc.. 

In a modern horror film, we expect young girls, ‘normal’ objects, use of dark and light, etc. These ‘genre indicators’ are called the iconography of the mise-en-scene or genre.’

So iconography can be defined as those particular signs we associate with particular genres.

Film producers use images that belong to the iconography of the genre to excite audience expectations, and to show that the film is within a certain genre. If you wanted to see a comfortable rom-com you would not go and see Prom Night, but if you wanted to be scared then this should do the trick.

Another way of putting it is to say genre can be identified by the look of the images in the text – this is the iconography, or the signs, that are associated with a genre. Iconography includes a wide range of ‘signs

To become part of the iconography of a genre a pattern of visual signs remain constant in that genre over a period of time. Some of the things that make up genre iconography include:


Cowboys wear ten gallon hats;

characters in costume dramas wear wigs and historic costumes;

tough guys in thrillers wear black leather jackets;

in high school movies everyone wears tight T shirts, sneakers and some wear hoodies.


Thrillers are set in challenging urban neighbourhoods found in big cities such as LA or New York. Horror movies since Halloween (1978) tend to be set in typically quiet suburban settings. Sci-fi films inhabit futuristic cities with flying cars, adverts in the sky (e.g. Bladerunner), and high tech interiors.


Some film stars can be an important part of a film’s iconography, and carry their own iconographic meanings.

This was perhaps more evident in the past where stars like John Wayne are always associated with Westerns. Modern stars such as Clint Eastwood carry the iconographic meaning of the loner against the world. Campsall (ibid) says:

‘stars create expectations of character and action, genre, and powerful iconic representations of such as masculinity and femininity.’


These are the moveable objects that are so important to many movies.

Gangster films must have guns.

Classic gangster films have a certain form of gun – the violin case machine gun.

Characters in Westerns carry classic Colt revolvers, or the Winchester rifle.

Police and thrillers use expensive multi-shot shiny hand guns.

Cars are important for what they signify in a film.

Large American gas guzzling V8 saloons can signify the freedom of the open road, as well as escape, and refuge.

Cars can be an extension of a character’s personality as well as a device to create excitement and thrills.

Signs and Signifiers

When we look at the iconography of a film we are looking at the way certain images convey layers of meaning – in other words there is much more meaning than is at first apparent. The science of how meaning is created by signs is called semiology, from the Greek work semeion meaning sign. Semiology explores the way signs and codes are used in texts.

So what is Semiotics?

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and sign systems, and their meanings. Semiotics is a way of explaining how we make meaning in a text. But meaning is not just what you read or see.

 Semiotics tells us that all meaning is ‘encoded’ in objects and images that create meaning.

The word ‘love’ can be seen as the sign of an idea that encodes many different meanings. As you read the word you interpret it’s meaning according to who you are, your education and your cultural values, and the context that the word is in. We learn to decode this meaning as we grow up and are educated. Our understanding of the meaning of the word love depends, to a certain extent, on what other people over the centuries have already decided it means. 


1. How would you interpret the word love in this picture?

 2. Create a sign of the meaning of love without the word love in it.


In semiotics, a sign is the smallest amount of meaning we can decode, and which also contributes to overall meaning.

For example, in the way you dress each day you encode an ensemble of signs to create a meaning. This might be a ‘designer’ meaning suggesting wealth and power, or a street-cred meaning suggesting an anti establishment attitude or just person taste.

 If all this sounds very complicated look at it this way – a sign has more than one meaning especially when it is in a media text such as a film.

So meaning works in two distinct ways.

1. A sign has a basic meaning literal meaning – for example – a poppy is a flower. This is called its denotation.

2. A sign can also have another second meaning related to something completely different, which is often related to its context. This is called its connotation.

If you put the poppy in a field with another sign which has many meanings such as a cross, you have an overall image with multiple meanings. 

In the above example: the poppy is a sign which when added to the sign of a cross connotates the cultural code of remembrance for those killed in war, particularly the first World War.

In November in the UK the red poppy on its own has connotations. Many people wear a poppy as a sign to connotate that they share in the grief for those fallen in war. In another culture the poppy sign could be interpreted quite differently.

We can say that the poppy is a flower but it has a connotation which is the extra meaning brought to the image through the cultural values of the reader. 

In semiotics, a code is any group of signs that seem to go together to create an overall unit of meaning. So the poppy and the cross are a code. See: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/article/remembrance-poppy.htm

Semiotics Theory

In semiotics there are three basic types of sign and code:

1. Iconic signs and codes are created to represent the thing itself so that an image of a mafia gangster looks like, or signifies, a mafia gangster.

Iconic codes also work to create extra meaning so that when we see an image of a gangster we associate it with meanings of lawlessness, of a person involved in drug dealing, a dangerous person who will kill, and who our culture identifies as a definite ‘baddie’. 

2. Indexical signs are different. They work by indirectly suggesting a meaning by prodding our existing knowledge and understanding.

For example a heart shape signifies romance suggesting love between two people. The heart shape has no meaning in itself, except to symbolise love. Indexical codes are a type of media shorthand which can be seen everywhere in advertising and in the way signs are used to give us information such as road signs.


Think of all the memories, ideas, feelings, and cultural references that the indexical sign of a lighted Christmas tree invokes.

Write a list now – write about the personal significances the Christmas tree has for you, and write about the wider cultural significances such as peace, family, togetherness, presents, and spiritual renewal.

 You can add your musical signifiers too, which may not be just Christmas songs and carols.

 3. Symbolic codes act as signifiers of meaning which are not remotely the same as what they actually look like (what they denote).

Often in a film the bad guy wears all black, and this is to symbolise evil.

An all black outfit may suggest ‘cool’ too. Both meanings have nothing intrinsically to do with the clothes themselves.

In comedy sketches a burglar may wear a striped shirt, a mask, and carry a bag marked swag – we all know that this costume symbolises a comic burglar – it works as a short hand for the audience– but why the striped shirt symbolises a burglar is an interesting question.

Theorists in Semiology tell us that the meaning a code communicates is always culturally determined.  This means that we learn codes and symbols as we grow up according to our society and culture.

Well known buildings can connotate much more than the image of a large building.

Look at this picture of Buckingham Palace. What is the connotation about England? It suggests that England has a monarch, is a stable country with a well respected ruling king or Queen, who comes from a tradition of established monarchy but is not dominated by the monarch – compare this quite discrete palace to any one of Saddam Hussein’s many enormous palaces.

Somehow this picture represents aspects of Great Britain that are attractive to people from abroad. It also connotes patriotism and pride to many English people. Many well known buildings work hard to express a variety of connotations – can you think of any other famous buildings that symbolise more than just the use of building.

This seems to have come along way from film iconography but, if you think about it, it is all very similar. Think of any film that you enjoyed – the characters, the costumes, the settings, the objects, the way the film is shot, the use of lighting, the selection of shots – big close ups, or a lot of of wide shots, the way the film is edited, the use of music ( where would the film Breakfast at Tiffanys be without the song Moon River) all these things go towards the iconography of the film.

It’s really fun working out how all the signs and symbols work to create a rich cinematic experience.


7 Responses to Understanding Iconography

  1. Emily Docherty says:

    Who was this section written by? And when was it published?

  2. Donielle says:

    Hi there, How did you come across my artwork? -Donielle Boal

  3. Bob says:

    hi what is it called if icnography from films is used in songs eg. scouting for girls- james bond uses iconography and imagery for the film james bond…? thanks

  4. dave says:

    heyyyyyy 🙂

  5. Andrew says:

    I would like to know the author and editors of this work. I intend to cite as a work in a research paper. If there are any sponsoring institutions, I would need their name as well. I’m also having difficulty find this work posted date. If you’d be so kind answer as soon as possible. Thank you.

  6. Andrew says:

    Sorry for the terrible grammar, it’s 2:45…

  7. Andrew says:

    A very good start to the article and gives more insight on what movies are all about…

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