The identification of scenes in sculpture, painting and the minor arts has long been a major activity of classical archaeology, although it has traditionally been accorded less emphasis than the identification of artists' hands. In all the figurative arts conventional schemes were developed, sometimes under the influence of near‐eastern iconography, for portraying particular mythical figures and episodes. Individual artists exploited conventional imagery not simply by replicating it, but by playing variations on a theme or by echoing the conventional scheme for one episode when portraying a different one. An extreme form of this is iconographic parody.
The origins of particular iconographic schemes, and the reasons why the popularity of scenes changes over time, are rarely clear. Ceramic vessels may owe some of their imagery to lost gold or silver plate, and some vases can reasonably be held to take over the imagery of lost wall‐paintings or of famous sculptures, such as the Tyrannicides group (see aristogiton). Direct representation of scenes from comic drama is popular in 4th‐cent. bc south Italian pottery. In the Greek world, public sculpture often carried broadly political meaning, using the otherness of more or less fantastic figures, Centaurs or Amazons, to define the behaviour of the good citizen.
Recent work on the non‐mythical imagery on painted pottery has helped to uncover the ideology of the Greek city, stressing the way in which imagery can create ways of seeing as well as reflect them. Changes in the popularity of particular scenes or types of scene over time, at least when those changes extend over the work of several different painters, may indicate changing social concerns. The imagery on pots has a close relationship with the use to which those pots are put, and this can be seen esp. clearly with both vessels deposited in graves and vessels used at the symposium, many of which are self‐referential. One valuable source of information here lies in the way in which painters restrict scenes of certain types of activity to imaginary characters, such as satyrs. But it is unsafe to assume that the attitudes displayed at the symposium were shared by society as a whole. The preservation of extensive areas of private housing at Pompeii and Herculaneum, enables us to see programmes of imagery with which some rich people surrounded themselves, and the care and originality with which they constructed visual narratives out of linked imagery.
Images were a major part of religious cult. Cult statues sometimes incorporated whole programmes of mythical imagery, as in the Athena Parthenos; see phidias. In the Roman world religious imagery became increasingly complex, and more or less arcane symbolic programmes are associated with mystery cults. Christianity, with its use of types and antitypes drawn from pagan mythology as well as from both OT and NT, further enriched the interpretative range of familiar imagery. See art, ancient attitudes to; art, funerary; myth and mythology; painting; pisistratus; pottery; sculpture.
Subjects: Classical Studies.