To create an iconographic image, the painter usually draws inspiration from a literary source, elaborating it into compositional schemes suitable for figurative art. The literary concept is artistically reinterpreted and sometimes undergoes slight variations in order to integrate and contextualize the message at the time in which the artwork is created. Identifying the subject or the subjects of the painting, together with the theme represented in it, is of fundamental importance for a correct evaluation of the painting.
Knowing how to recognize the content of a painting is essential in order to penetrate and understand the work, even from a formal point of view. Normally the subjects and the stories that inspire the compositional themes of paintings are derived from literature, from mythology, from the scripts of the Holy Bible, from history and, therefore, from our culture. The tools for identifying and interpreting the subjects and themes represented in the paintings are iconography and iconology. Iconography is a discipline that deals with the description, classification and interpretation of the subjects and themes represented in the paintings, while the iconology deals with their symbolic and allegorical meaning, historically coherent with the socio-cultural context in which they were performed. The use of these tools presupposes the knowledge of topics and concepts transmitted by literary sources and familiarity with the culture and traditions of the people and the geographical area to which the painting belongs.
By integrating our basic culture with the knowledge of the main symbols used in painting, together with the study of styles and pictorial schools, we are able to acquire an adequate critical caution that allows us to interpret and value the paintings with the identification of the meanings contained in them, of their origin, of the period in which they were performed, of the school to which they belong and, often, of the author.
To understand the significance of the paintings is essential to correctly identify the subjects and allegorical symbols represented in them, which provide us the key to unlock the cultural, social, religious or historical message that the author wants to convey.
Training the mind to identify the symbols and allegorical attributes that identify the subjects is of fundamental importance for the understanding of the paintings. All of us, to varying degrees, have a basic culture that derives from previous studies, such as elementary schools, middle schools, high school and other direct and indirect life experiences, but it is a fact that we rarely completely use our cultural baggage. On the contrary, if well exploited, it represents a very precious source of information.
The knowledge of the symbols used in painting is of extreme importance: they are "the alphabet" through which it is possible to read the pictorial representations.