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A s p e c t s o f i c o n o g ra p h i c d e s c r i p t i o n
Iconclass and the "Spine"
Stephen Rawles'"Spine of Information Headings for Emblem-Related Electronic Resources"
includes Iconclass as a recommended feature of the information provided about digital emblem
books.Yet, from the place it has been assigned in this list of desiderata for electronic resources, it
is not apparent what role Iconclass should or could play in this scheme.The present paper intends
to clarify that point. It does not aim at prescribing ex cathedra how others should create their
iconographic information. It will simply show - in the guise of an extended "scope note" ­ how
we at Mnemosyne use Iconclass.
What to do with
picturae?
In the "Spine" section E.19 is labeled Pictorial motifs and section E.22 is assigned to Iconclass
terms.This suggests that Iconclass is to be applied to something other than "pictorial motifs."
Since Iconclass is an iconographic classification system, this is confusing.What the "Spine" actu-
ally intends to say here is that if you want to use a controlled vocabulary for the indexing of the
contents of pictures, Iconclass is the preferred one. In current practice, some digitization projects
do employ Iconclass for this purpose, while others create subject access to pictures with the help
of keywords or prose descriptions.
To decide whether and, if so, how to apply Iconclass, we need to assess the role it can play in
the creation of subject access to pictures.To be able to do so we also need to have an idea of the
factors that generally determine the description of pictures, whether they are emblematic or not.
Paradoxically enough, these factors have almost as much to do with things that are not visible in
the picture as with things that are visible. I propose we first have a brief look at those visual and
non-visual factors. I shall do this in a selective but more or less systematic way, focusing on four
postulates.
Emblems are not isolated historical phenomena
It would be hard to find a student of emblems who disagrees with this point. So, the first illus-
trations shown here are hardly more than a symbolic reminder of the fact that emblems are
important elements of a much wider historical context.
Illustration 2:Valerius Maximus, Des faits et des paroles
mémorables, f. 321r (Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB 66 B
13): Quintus Sertorius orders two men to pull the hair
from a horse's tail. An illustration of the theme of
"Slow perseverance over hasty violence."
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