Treasures from the Vault: Defining Iconography with Guardabassi and Liu

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibition Content Manager

Today we’ll be examining two different works, one treasure and one currently on display, through the lens of a stuffy art history term – iconography. But have no fear, I’ll help you understand this term and traverse the exciting world that it unfolds.

I don’t like to start off a post as “that person”, but here we go. Merriam-Webster defines iconography as “the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject, especially a religious or legendary subject.” Thank you, Merriam-Webster. Now, what this definition means is that many traditional individuals from the fine art canon have specific symbols associated with them, and these symbols allow viewers to understand what they see. This method of communication was popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance because the vast majority of the population was illiterate. Art was the main means of communicating religious stories and morals, and iconography helped everyday people to understand the stories of Christianity. They could use iconography symbols to decode the artworks, for example, they knew that a woman with a broken wheel next to her represented Saint Catherine of Alexandria while an old man writing at a desk with a lion at his feet was Saint Jerome. One of the most recognizable iconographic symbols is the Virgin Mary’s brilliant blue shroud. Lapis lazuli, the stone used to create the purest blue for centuries, was mined in the Middle East, and therefore exorbitantly expensive. As a result, use of this color was almost exclusively reserved for representations of Mary. This brings us to our first work of art, Guerrino Guardabassi’s late 19th century painting Mother and Babe.


A close up of the treasure from the vault. Guerrino Guardabassi, Italian, 1841-1893. Mother & Babe. Watercolor on paper, c. 1880. Theodore Thieme Collection, 1922.35.

Guardabassi’s Mother and Babe may not look like a traditional Madonna and Child image – this mother isn’t cradling her babe or gesturing to him reverently – but on closer inspection we can infer that it is. We see a woman in 19th century rural northern Italian dress, and she sits by a steaming pot with a small child in a basket at her feet. The woman herself doesn’t have a blue shroud around her head, but we see it draped over the babe’s basket. Now, since we’re all now aware of the importance of Mary’s blue mantle in art history, we can deduce that Guardabassi was in fact creating a rustic Madonna and Child. In Western art, the representation of the Madonna and Child in quiet contemplation was often used to inspire devotion through beauty and tenderness – there is no strictly religious message here. By donning his “Mary” in traditional dress Guardabassi is commenting on the strength and honor of motherhood. It’s through his knowledge and implementation of iconographic symbols that Guardabassi is able to have this conversation with his viewers.


The treasure from the vault. Guerrino Guardabassi, Italian, 1841-1893. Mother & Babe. Watercolor on paper, c. 1880. Theodore Thieme Collection, 1922.35.

You may be wondering if contemporary artists employ iconography like this and yes, they do! One example is Hung Liu’s 2015 lithograph Black Madonna, currently on display in Stone Truths: Lithographs from the Collection.

The treasure on display.
Hung Liu, American, b. 1948. “Black Madonna” Lithograph, 2015. Museum Purchase, 2017.02.

In this print, Liu has portrayed a young African American woman holding her small child. Instead of relying on colors, Liu has made use of the traditional Madonna and Child pose. But she’s also made one important change – instead of gazing at her child and ignoring the viewer, she stares out, engaging with her audience. She is not a passive participant in her surroundings, instead she’s a strong woman who commands recognition. Black Madonna was part of a series of prints where Liu looked to often underrepresented social groups – African American, Latino, and Native American women especially – and imbued them with the power and strength traditionally reserved for white, religious subjects. In this case, an African American Madonna and Child. The result is a striking, modern work of art that utilizes iconography that has been around for almost 1,000 years.

These two pieces, Guardabassi’s Mother and Babe and Liu’s Black Madonna, don’t look even remotely related at first. However, when we’re armed with the knowledge of iconography and its symbols, we can look at a seemingly simple depiction of a woman and a child and recognize that it’s more than a quaint scene – it’s a symbol of a mother’s love, beauty, and strength. When we understand how to employ art historical tools like iconography, we become aware of an artist’s secret message and can begin to understand what they’re trying to tell us. Think of it as being an art detective – the clues and symbols are there, ready to be unscrambled and understood. And now, armed with your iconographic cipher, you’re ready to start finding the answers.

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