By Marjorie Munsterberg

Writing About Art

APPENDIX III:  Sample student papers (iconographic analysis)


The CCNY students who wrote these papers were given variations of the assignment below, with the iconographic subject and the visual details that identify it specified in the assignment. These papers did not necessarily receive an A, but they showed basically strong organization and they explained how the viewer's attention was drawn to the essential iconographic elements.  Although I have edited them lightly for this book, what appears here is, in all important ways, the same as what the students gave me. 

      These sample papers should be read critically in the same way as those in the previous sections.  Underline the topic sentences and see if their sequence of topics seems logical.  Look at each paragraph and see if it develops the idea introduced by the topic sentence.  Look at the first paragraph with special care. This is where the reader should learn what the paper will be about, and what specific issues it will address.  Does the paper do what it promises?  Is enough visual information given for the reader to be able to follow the analysis?  Find reproductions of the works.  Does the paper discuss the relevant things that you see in them? 


The Assignment:

Go the Metropolitan Museum and select two [or three] works of art in any medium that tell the same story.  Identify the works by using all the information on the object label, including the museum number.  Write a 2-3 page essay (no more than 1000 words) describing the ways in which the works visually indicate what the subject is. You must give the reader a general idea of what the objects look like and what their subjects are. (Use the information about the subjects given on the assignment sheet. NO RESEARCH.) Then explain exactly which details identify the subject and why the viewer notices them. For example, have they been emphasized by color or by the composition?  Do the works draw your attention to the same details in different ways? Make sure you include enough information for the reader to be able to follow your analysis.   


Sample Student Iconographic Analysis #1

This paper will analyze the iconography of two medieval works from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Both of them depict the appearance of the resurrected Jesus Christ to his follower Mary Magdalene (Gospel of John 20:11-17).  According to the Bible, three days after Christ died by crucifixion and was buried, he was resurrected.  On that day, Mary Magdalene came to his tomb early in the morning, alone, and found the tomb empty.  As she was weeping in the garden outside the tomb, she recognized a man she thought was a gardener, and asked him what had become of Jesus’ body.  When the man spoke her name, Mary Magdalene recognized that he was Jesus Christ, who had been resurrected.  As she reached out to embrace Jesus, he motioned for her to stay back, saying “Do not touch me,” because he had not yet ascended into heaven.

      The first work I will discuss is a tapestry from the South Netherlands, The Resurrected Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene in the Garden (The Cloisters Collection, 56.47), which is about 5’ x 6’.  The tapestry was woven of wool, silk, and gilt-metal wrapped thread between 1500 and 1520 CE.  It presents Jesus standing just right of center, in front of a large fruit tree, with Mary Magdalene kneeling to his right.  Because Mary and Jesus are centered horizontally in the composition, and they are both large (between 2 and 3 feet tall), the viewer can determine that they are the primary subjects in the tapestry.  Christ is wearing a red robe, and the wounds on his hands and feet from where he was nailed to the cross are visible.  These signs identify the figure as Christ, indicating his mortality and recent death.  He is holding a shovel in his left hand, which explains Mary’s mistake in identifying him as a gardener.  Behind Jesus, in the upper right corner of the tapestry, is a small cliff with an open cave and a boulder sitting in front of it.  This cave represents Jesus’ tomb. 

      In the tapestry, Mary reaches out toward Jesus, as if to embrace him with both arms, but he holds his right hand up in protest, gesturing that she stop.  This body language communicates the most important part of the story, when Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch him.  Mary Magdalene is wearing a red robe over her blue dress, colors which attract the viewer's attention.  A small ceramic jar that is placed on the ground at the base of the fruit tree also identifies the woman as Mary Magdalene.  It reminds viewers of the biblical story when she washed Jesus' feet with her hair, after breaking open a jar of ointment.

      The second work I have selected is Ivory Plaque with the Journey to Emmaus and Noli Me Tangere (17.190.47).  This plaque is a small relief, carved in ivory around 1115-20 CE in Spain.  The sculpture, which is about 5” x 11”, depicts two scenes, one in the top half and the other in the bottom.  Between the two scenes, the following words are inscribed: DNS LOQVITVR MARIE, which is Latin for The Lord Speaks to Mary.  This fits the elements in the bottom panel, which depicts a bearded man standing on the right side of the panel, pointing to and partly pulling away from a woman on the left who is reaching out toward him. The inscription as well as the presence of a man and a woman, and the positions of the figures, make it clear that the scene in the bottom half of the plaque portrays Jesus in the garden with Mary Magdalene.  The figures are further identified by their haloes.  Christ's is marked with three decorative, v-shaped rays, symbolizing the Holy Trinity.  The woman has a simple halo around her head and is placed to the right side of Jesus, which indicates that she is a saint.  From all of these things, the viewer can conclude that this scene shows Jesus warning Mary Magdalene, “Noli Me Tangere” – “Do not touch me.” 


Sample Student Iconographic Analysis #2 

      This paper will analyze two paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that show the Adoration of the Shepherds, when shepherds come to pay their respects to the infant Jesus.  The first is an immense oil painting, about ten by six feet, by Ludovico Cardi, also known as Cigoli (1991.7).  The second is a small tempera painting by Andrea Mantegna (32.130.2), only 15 by 21 inches. In both paintings, the baby Jesus is in the center of the composition, emphasized by his position as well as the fact that he is the focus of the other figures' attention.  Mary is the one who is closest to him, indicating her importance.  The shepherds, across from her and on the other side of Jesus, are identified by their ragged clothes and their attitudes of respect.  The angels and haloes show that the subject is holy. 

      Cigoli's painting depicts a dramatic scene, illuminated by golden light and a star.  The baby lies in the center of the composition, a third of the way from the bottom of the painting.  He is emphasized by his position, the light, a star directly above him, and a white cloth held behind him.  He also is naked and still in the middle of a lot of color and activity.  The figure holding the cloth is Mary, who also is illuminated, has a halo, and is physically connected to the baby by the cloth.  To the left and just in front of her is a seated old man dressed in a yellow cape, with his hands resting on the top of a cane.  He forms a visual unit with Mary and Jesus, and is illuminated by the same light, indicating that he is Joseph. Across from the Holy Family, a man dressed in green kneels, while holding a lamb by its legs in his left hand.  Next to him is a standing man dressed in red.  The color and size of these figures make them stand out against the darkness behind them, and their clothes and the lamb identify them as shepherds. A few other figures stand outside this group.

      The second major area of Cigoli's painting is the top third of the composition, which contains angels and a large star set within golden and pink clouds.  This light contrasts with the small crescent moon and single flaming torch shown against the night sky in the lower part of the picture.  Angels depicted as nude babies with blue wings appear within the light, lying above or resting on a layer of dark clouds that separates this area from the figures below.  Two angels in the front hold a banner which reads "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," Latin for Glory to God in the highest.  The visual splendor of this heavenly part, which is high above the viewer of the painting because of the work's size, makes the painting seem joyous.

        Mantegna's picture treats the subject very differently.  Here too, the baby is at the center of the composition, a third of the way from the bottom of the painting.  Instead of being illuminated by heavenly light and a star, however, a very small naked Jesus lies on a dark blue cloth on rocky ground, with a detailed, hilly landscape extending far behind him. Mary kneels just to the baby’s left, overwhelming him with her size, and marked as special by her halo and the brightly colored angels around her and the baby.  To her left sits a sleeping old man who wears a bright yellow cape.  He and Mary wear red robes, have haloes, and are the largest figures in the scene.  Therefore he is Joseph.  In the other corner of the picture, to the right of the baby, two men in ragged clothes approach with gestures of prayer and respect.  They are the shepherds.  All of these figures seem very serious.  The background includes a rocky mountain behind the baby which emphasizes him and Mary, a river, several roads, a grassy hill with people and sheep on it, and a dark cliff.  More people are coming on the right.

      Despite the great differences in size, style, and emotional tone, the two paintings tell the same story. They also both invite the viewer to join in the worship by giving us direct visual access to the baby.  We complete the circle of figures around Jesus.  Thus they are devotional images, which encourage us to participate in the adoration. 


Sample Student Iconographic Analysis #3

      Walking through the Egyptian galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I found representations of the Egyptian king, a pharaoh, depicted in many different ways.  There were pharaoh statues, mummies, coffin cases, figurines, reliefs, and drawings, all of which had key details that identified the figures as an Egyptian pharaoh.  The three statues I selected show the pharaoh wearing a traditional headdress.  The first work is Head of a King, possibly Mentuhotep III (66.99.3).  From about 2000-1988 BCE, it is made of limestone and is just under life size.  It has been damaged.  The second work, Bust from Statue of a King (no number, Gallery 23), under life-size, was made of granite between 664-595 BCE.  The final statue I chose was Head of King Amenmesse (34.2.2), made of quartzite around 1200 BCE, and it seemed to be about life size. 

      The three statues display an elaborate head covering. Both Head of a King, possibly Mentuhotep III, and Bust from Statue of a King have one that begins from the middle of the forehead and rises up before stretching across the top of the head, with flat sides projecting out from behind the ears. In the first one, the headdress ends just below the chin, while in the second example, the headdress ends just above the chest.  Both also are decorated with chiseled lines, vertical (on the top) and horizontal (on the sides), spaced about a centimeter apart.  The third statue wears a headdress that rises above his head in a tall, oval shape.  It is larger than the pharaoh’s head, and the crown is rounded at the top with a flat back.

      The headdresses are adorned with a standing cobra, called a uraeus.  The uraeus was a symbol of royalty and divine authority in ancient Egypt.  The first statue has been damaged and the uraeus itself is missing, but the place where it once was is clear.  The cobra is very noticeable in the other two sculptures.  Many of the people represented in images and statues throughout the Egyptian galleries are wearing headdresses, but only the royal figures (and very few important gods like Osiris) also have the uraeus. 

      These statues depict very regal and powerful men, who look straight ahead, with their heads held up, blank eyes wide open, and very solemn expressions.  The right shoulder of Bust from Statue of a King indicates that his posture was tall and straight.  The symmetry of their features and the smoothness of their skin make them seem removed from us, their viewers.  They are not part of our world.  This also suggests their authority and power. 


Sample Student Iconographic Analysis #4

      Buddhism is a religion that began in India and spread across Asia.  Its art is filled with representations of Buddha, its founder, at different stages of his life. This paper will discuss how three different works in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art help one identify the subject as Buddha and how the representations differ.

      Standing Buddha (63.25) is a nearly 2' tall limestone sculpture from the Northern Qi dynasty of China, approximately 550-577 A.D. The sculpture shows a standing man with his arms outstretched. We can identify him as Buddha by his elongated earlobes, the bulge on top of his head or ushnisha, and the lotus halo behind his head. He also wears the simple robe of monks, with a buckle connecting the left and right parts hanging in front of his body.  The robe shows the curves and contours of his body beneath it.

      The second work, Seated Preaching Buddha (20.43), is a black stone sculpture from 11th-century India. This Buddha has an ushnisha that is textured like his hair and elongated earlobes. There also is a small high relief circle between his eyebrows called an urna, another physical symbol of Buddha.  Wearing a simple robe with a "U" shaped neckline, he sits on a double lotus throne with his legs crossed so that the soles of his feet are visible. In the center of each foot is a chakra, or ancient sun symbol that represents the various states of existence and the Buddhist doctrine (Wheel of the Law).  There is also a chakra on his right palm.

      The third work is a hanging scroll called Welcoming the Descent of Amida Buddha (30.72.1), from the Muromachi period (1392-1573) in Japan. It depicts a standing Buddha descending from heaven on clouds to escort a believer to the Western Paradise (Museum object label).  Buddha is in the center of the scroll, surrounded by two differently sized pale halos. One surrounds his head and the other surrounds his body.  His feet rest on lotus flower thrones that are floating on curvaceous white clouds that look like puffs of cigarette smoke.  He has a textured ushnisha, elongated earlobes, and wears a robe that is draped like a monk's but is made of a richer, more decorative, fabric. His hands are gesturing as he floats down the scroll. 

      All three of these works represent Buddha with an ushnisha, elongated earlobes, and a simple robe. They also show the lotus.  The works differ in how they present the shared symbols. The works from India and Japan have textured hair and ushnishas, while these features are smooth in the Chinese sculpture.  The Chinese and Japanese artists made the flow and movement of the robe very evident, while the Indian sculptor only indicated the presence of the cloth at the neckline.  Finally, the lotus appears in a halo in the statue from China, while it is part of a throne in other two.  In all of them, however, Buddha seems to be gentle and welcoming.