Iconographic terminology and the digital age

By Barry Pearce, Dec.2021

As the modern computing environment infiltrates every aspect of our lives, it brings with it a wide range of terminology. For the most part there is little conflict with musicology research. However, the terminology does come into conflict in iconography research in a way that can lead to misunderstanding.

The words picture and image are already ambiguous and overloaded with numerous meanings. The word image has acquired a number of new meanings in the field of computing, but most problematic is the use of the word to mean a graphics file. This language appears on every Google search results page where you will find “images” option will show you image files that match your search. The concept of image file formats (who hasn’t heard of JPEG these days?) and image files are now well established within the every day language of the population thanks to mobile devices and the proliferation of digital photography especially on mobile phones.

As example of this new confusion, if I said I have around 25000 images of bowed string instrument iconography, would you understand that to mean I have 25000 sources, 25000 different individual portrayals, or 25000 files?

Alongside my research and designing the Bowed Strings Iconography project database, and website, I found that I needed a clear concise unambiguous terminology. The resultant terminology was published as the BSIP Glossary.1 I want to present some of that glossary here, as it may be useful for anyone working with iconography. In particular this terminology avoids the word picture and clears up confusion surrounding the word image by clearly separating the language of the recording and storage domain from that of the analysis domain. 

Source An object that includes depictions of features that we are interested in (Research Targets – see below). For example a folio side, a painting or sculpture. This is not new terminology, but is here for clarity.
Collective Source A physical binding together of several Sources, each of which is generally considered a work of art in their own right. This binding can take many forms such as buildings, books and manuscripts. In general it pulls together Sources which are bound into the fabric of something. For example, buildings may encompass stone sculptures and frescoes (because they are paintings which are physically bound into the fabric of a building). Other examples are illuminated manuscripts and books of all kinds including printed books and albums. A Collective Source is not merely the place were several movable artworks are co-located. So a painting on canvas located in a church is not part of a Collective Source, unless it is bound to the fabric of the building itself.
Depiction A visual representation of something (such as an instrument, bow or musician).
Image Used very much in the computing sense of the word. A given source may have any number of images associated with it showing various aspects of that source. They may be photographs, photogrammetry, radiograms and so on.
Research Target A depiction of a feature that we are interested in for research. For BSIP this means either a bowed string instrument, a bow used to play such instruments, or a musician who is connected to these items.

A given source may contain any number of depictions, each depiction belongs to a single source. Each research target corresponds directly to a single depiction and vice versa. Each source may optionally belong to one collective source. There is no link between sources and images, nor between depictions and images. This means images can potentially show multiple sources, a single source, multiple depictions (research targets), or be related additional information.

This terminology works across different types of sources (iconographic/archaeological/extant instruments). I hope that these definitions will prove useful, and welcome further discussion regarding them.


1 Pearce, Barry, Bowed Strings Iconography Project: Glossary (2020/2021) <https://bsip.org.uk/help/glossary>

Cite this article:

Pearce, Barry. Iconographic terminology and the digital age" (Dec 2021) <https://bsip.org.uk/articles/iconographic-terminology>

 This article was published by FoMRHI  in FoMRHI Quarterly 156 Comm-2172: 24-25 (December 2021).