Iconographic analysis is used to establish the meaning of a particular work at a particular time. To identify the subject of an altarpiece as a Madonna and Child, however, explains nothing about the use of the altarpiece, how it fit into the surrounding culture, its economic import, or what it may reveal about social and political issues of the period….What matters is the way the context is described and what kinds of relationships are established between it and the work or works being studied….To juxtapose a few generalizations about a historical context with a work from the period without suggesting any particular relationships between the two does not reveal very much.
She took the work of Millard Meiss (1951) as an example. His book covers the history of Florentine and Sienese painting from around 1350 to 1375. During the summer months of 1348 more than half of the inhabitants of Florence and Siena died of the bubonic plague, which had a profound efect on all aspects of life including art.
Life for survivors of the plague was changed in every respect. Economic disruption had brought great prosperity and political power to some. These new patrons of the arts, Meiss [1951, p. 70] argued, "adhered to more traditional patterns of thought and feeling" which were better expressed by religious art of the late 13th century than by the new styles of the first half of the 14th century. Religious piety became particularly intense, and new subjects entered art while old ones were represented in new ways. "The writing of the period, like the painting, was pervaded by a profound pessimism and sometimes a renunciation of life. . . . [T]he brevity of life and the certainty of death . . . was preached from the pulpits . . . and set forth in paintings, both altarpieces and murals." [Meiss, 1951, p. 74] Finally, religious institutions were flooded with donations from people who were dying or who expected to die. These resources permitted the beginning of ambitious projects of building and decoration. [Meiss, 1951, p. 78–9]
As a second example, Musterberg cited the work of Michael Baxandall (1972). His study of a period about 50 years after that of Meiss, rather than account for the extraordinary, focuses on the everyday. Baxandall also:
studied the "institutions and conventions – commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social – that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made." [Baxandall, 1972, p. 1] Baxandall tried to recover the assumptions of painters and viewers, the things they would have thought important and the things they would have taken for granted. He considered all sorts of historical information to construct an image of a "Quattrocento cognitive style as it relates to Quattrocento pictorial style." [Baxandall, 40.] Religious texts and the nature of the commission determined important aspects of the way religious pictures looked. [Baxandall, 1972, pp. 40-56]. All images, religious and secular, used conventional ways to represent the human figure, especially in its movements. In Botticelli's Primavera, "the central figure of Venus is not beating time to the dance of the Graces but inviting us with hand and glance into her kingdom. We miss the point of the picture if we mistake the gesture." [Baxandall, 70] Baxandall also identified ways of describing the world visually that were found in business as well as specialized professions such as medicine, preaching, and dance. [Baxandall, 1972, pp. 71–108] Finally, he analyzed the words in a Florentine text about art to establish the vocabulary used by 15th-century viewers of the pictures. [Baxandall, 1972, pp. 118–50].
The historical context Baxandall constructed depends upon extensive and inventive archival research, beyond the reach of all but a few scholars. The method he used, however, can be taken as a model:
A society develops its distinctive skills and habits, which have a visual aspect, since the visual sense is the main organ of experience, and these visual skills and habits become part of the medium of the painter: correspondingly, a pictorial style gives access to the visual skills and habits and, through these, to the distinctive social experience. An old picture is a record of a visual activity. One has to learn to read it, just as one has to learn to read a text from a different culture, even when one knows, in a limited sense, the language: both language and pictorial representation are conventional activities. [Baxandall, 1972, p. 152]
These examples illustrate both how the context, derived through iconographical analysis, is important in adding meaning to the painting and how much work is involved in doing the analysis.