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Iconclass is a specialized library classification designed for art and iconography. It was originally conceived by Henri van de Waal, and was further developed by a group of scholars after his death.

The Iconclass system is one of the largest classification system for cultural content and possibly the largest for visual arts content. Initially designed for historical imagery, it is now also used to create subject access to texts and to classify a wide range of images, including modern photography. At the moment it contains over 28,000 unique concepts (classification types) and has an entry vocabulary of 14,000 keywords. Like the Dewey Decimal Classification system, it has 10 main "divisions" or points of entry, and these are:

  • 0 Abstract, Non-representational Art
  • 1 Religion and Magic
  • 2 Nature
  • 3 Human being, Man in general
  • 4 Society, Civilization, Culture
  • 5 Abstract Ideas and Concepts
  • 6 History
  • 7 Bible
  • 8 Literature
  • 9 Classical Mythology and Ancient History

Each division has 9 or 10 subdivisions, and so on. It can be consulted with the help of the freely available Iconclass 2100 browser. Iconclass was developed in the Netherlands as a standard classification for recording collections, with the idea of assembling huge databases that will allow the retrieval of images featuring particular details, subjects or other common factors. It was developed in the 1970s and was loosely based on the Dewey Decimal System because it was meant to be used in art library card catalogs.

The iconclass code represents a concept and objects can be assigned a code indicating that the object depicts that concept. For example, the iconclass code "71H7131" is for the subject of "Bathsheba (alone) with David's letter". The code is built from "7" for bible, "71" for "Old Testament", "71H" the "story of David", "71H7" for "David and Bathsheba", "71H71" for "David observing Bathsheba bathing", and "71H713" for "Bathsheba receiving a letter from David".

A number of collections of different types have been classified using Iconclass, notably many types of old master print, the collections of the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin and the German Marburger Index. These can be matched to Wikidata introducing the iconclass "hierarchy of somethings" to the current Wikidata property structure. Completed iconclass projects are available, usually on-line or on DVD.[1][2] Ideally however, iconclass coding is never finished, as it is also possible to keep adding codes to the system to identify more concepts. The system can also be used outside pure art history, for example on sites like Flickr.[3][broken citation]

The content of Iconclass is currently maintained by the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (Netherlands Institute for Art History). The online Iconclass browser is developed by the Henri van de Waal Foundation.


See also www.foleorpublishers.com. See also R. van Straten, Iconography – Indexing – ICONCLASS. A Handbook, Leiden 1994.

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