Linger in any gallery or museum long enough and sooner or later you will hear questions being raised by visitors curious about the content of the pictures before them: ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Who are these figures?’ ‘Is there more to that flower and basket of fruit?’

The identification and search for meaning behind the visual arts is known as iconography, literally ‘image writing’, from the Greek εἰκών (‘image’) and γράφειν (‘to write’). The earliest studies of iconography date to the sixteenth century and consisted mainly of collections of emblems and symbols gathered from classical literature accompanied by explanatory text.

The following century saw iconography break away from archaeological practice, as it took on the mantle of what many people most closely associate with it: the study of religious, mainly Christian, symbolism.

Christian iconography lies at the heart of this exhibition, with the strong religious nature of the Alfred and Isabel Reed Collection providing a deep well from which to draw. The thirty-five items on display – a combination of illuminated manuscripts and printed books – range from three thirteenth-century Latin Bibles to a fine early-twentieth-century facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible. The majority of the objects date to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and cover such themes as major biblical scenes, the Trinity, the symbols of the Evangelists and other saints, and imagery used to preface the individual sections in a Book of Hours.

Other forms of iconography developed out of classical and Christian symbolism. In late-nineteenth-century Britain a coded ‘language of flowers’, known as floriography, developed as a means for the restrained Victorians to pass coded messages that expressed emotions best unspoken.

Iconography was also adopted by early printers who incorporated symbolic meaning into their devices. Few are as famous as the festina lente (‘make haste slowly’) dolphin and anchor of the Aldine Press in Venice, seen on the title-page of a 1540 edition of the works of Cicero (case 14). Shown alongside the Aldine is Christopher Plantin’s 1565 Latin Bible; exhibited for the title-page wood-engraving depicting the hand of God using a compass (the Plantin Press device) to draw the world, combining the religious with the proud Dutch tradition of fine cartography.

Symbolism and iconography are not unknown to us today. There are many twentieth- and twenty-first-century examples all around us from street signs to emoticons. However, as society shifts further towards secularization and classical literature no longer holds its central place in many literature courses, the images and symbols displayed in this exhibition are becoming less and less recognisable by people outside academic circles (‘Do you want one with or without the little man on it?’ was the question recently asked of a Heritage staff member seeking to purchase a Crucifix from a local shop.) It is hoped the present exhibition will shed some light on these once familiar symbols and reacquaint us with the images and hidden messages of centuries past.

A PDF of the exhibition catalogue is available for download (6.2Mb in PDF format).