Iconography, or Cozy Cats

by Sheila Connolly

Iconography is a fancy word, eh? According to Webster’s, it means the “traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject.” Dan Brown preferred the term “symbology” for his wildly popular series, starting with The Da Vinci Code (last time I looked, Harvard did not teach “symbology,” but that’s neither here nor there). I know about iconography because I did study it at Harvard, where I was, in another life, a medievalist specializing in twelfth-century sculpture in France, which is rich with symbols (remember, most people who were not monks couldn’t read, so ideas had to be communicated by images), not to mention visual puns and irreverent and occasionally obscene items sneaked into corners.

What does this have to do with writing mysteries? More than you might think. Not a lot of stuff from the Middle Ages has survived, so if you’re studying anything from that era, be it style or content, you’re stuck with working with a very small sample of original data. That means you sometimes have to make great leaps of logic to fill in the gaps.  You can guess things like, “Artist X must have seen Artist Y’s work, because there is a striking similarity between X’s and Y’s depiction of drapery.” Or clouds. Or noses. I swear, I once took a semester-long seminar titled “Giotto’s Thumb,” which, if I remember correctly, used the manner in which the Italian Renaissance artist Giotto painted thumbs to identify a whole crop of his students and thus determine his influence.

But there is a basic principle here: everything in an image has significance. Everything looks the way it does for a reason, because the creator put it there (just as we writers do now). It may be the mainstream symbolism of the church or a powerful family, or it may be the tongue-in-cheek commentary of the artist, but it is not accidental. And there is also the inescapable influence of society—often the church or other religions in the early days. For example, you see a halo, you know you’re looking at a saint. It’s like a code for the viewers.

We as writers are not immune to this, even now. To draw on the iconography of cozies, if you give a character a pet—cat or dog—that tells the reader something about that person, without the author saying anything descriptive.  Give that character a ferret or a tortoise, and that conveys something different. Give that character a phobia about small furry creatures, and you’ve got a different character (and probably one the reader will like less!).

I just happen to have a handy example. What does this cover tell you about what's inside the book?
I just happen to have a handy example. What does this cover tell you about what’s inside the book?

You the reader are being influenced by iconography every time you walk into a bricks-and-mortar bookstore and browse the shelves. You can recognize a cozy cover from across the room. Usually there is a lot of detail, whether it’s an interior or an exterior scene. Lots of kitchen or small-shop settings, often with food. Lots of Victorian houses. Lots of dogs or cats. In contrast, if you want a thriller, you look for a dark cover with shadowy figures, often turned away. When you reach for one or the other book, you are responding to the symbolism embedded in each cover.

Having said all that, I’m still puzzling over why there

The Clonmacnoise High Cross
The Clonmacnoise High Cross

is a large image of a cat carved on one of the medieval high crosses at the former monastery of Clonmacnoise in the middle of Ireland. This cat is not just tucked in the corner to fill out the space, but is up at the top where you can’t miss it. Maybe there’s a story behind it, like the monastery had a much-loved pet cat; or maybe there’s a broader religious symbolism. You have to admit that this cat looks like it’s chewing on a rat, which would be an evil pest because it consumed the grain that the monastery needed. That would make it a “good” cat defeating the “evil” rat, and it gets top billing on the cross.

The Clonmacnoise Cat (and rat)
The Clonmacnoise Cat (and rat)

Aren’t you glad I’ve now drawn a straight line between the art of the Middle Ages and contemporary cozy covers?

8 Thoughts

  1. I would expect no less from you, Sheila! And also that you would have the eye to notice the cat on the cross. Agree about cozy covers (except my first one, alas, which is gorgeous but didn’t really look like a cozy cover).

  2. Such a fun post! How interesting that Dan Brown changed “iconography” to “symbology”- I wonder why?

  3. Sheila, I love this post… so fascinating. Curious if you ever studied medieval church art with Margaret Miles. Her courses were among my favorites, but I didn’t get into the detail as much as you. I could barely keep my head above water in her classes, although I loved them as well as Kimberley Patton’s. That cat… wooo! Love your books so much!

    1. I don’t think I knew Margaret Miles, Reine, but it’s been a few years, er, decades since I studied art at all. (I taught art history for a couple of years after that.) What I did and do love about medieval art is the bits that make it personal–there may be six-foot figures of saints in the middle of an image, but it you look in the dark corners, there are fantastical creatures with two heads, or naked humans doing decidedly non-religious things. But I’ve seldom seen such an image as large as this cat!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying my books!

      1. Thanks for the reply, Sheila. I wasn’t close to being an art history major, but Margaret was my advisor. She used to come to hear me read my poetry at the Div School. When I needed a new advisor she offered even though I knew nothing about image as insight. Her thoughts on such things that you mention were amazing to me, because I had never noticed. Ugh. I was into the the surprises of out of place words like bits of Gilgamesh in Genesis. Anyway… thanks!

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