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About Iconclass

History of Iconclass

Iconclass was developed by Henri van de Waal (1910-1972), Professor of Art History at the University of Leiden. His ideas for a systematic overview of subjects, themes and motifs in Western art, which later became the Iconclass system, took shape in the early 1950s. The complete Iconclass system was finished in the years after 1972 by a large group of scholars and was published between 1973 and 1985 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), of which Van de Waal was a member. The publication was followed by the development of several computerized editions of Iconclass by the University of Utrecht in the years 1990 to 2001.

Numerous institutions across the world use Iconclass to describe and classify their collections in a standardized manner. In turn, users ranging from art historians to museum visitors use Iconclass to search and retrieve images from these collections. And as a research tool, Iconclass is also used to identify the significance of entire scenes or individual elements represented within an image. Iconclass applications used around the world have made it the most widely accepted classification system for visual documents.

In October 2001, the Iconclass management was transferred to the KNAW. The KNAW was actively involved in supporting Iconclass translation projects. The multilingual Iconclass Libertas Browser became freely accessible as default online browser for Iconclass in November of 2004. In September 2006, the Iconclass management was transferred to the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague. In cooperation with the RKD, Etienne Posthumus and Hans Brandhorst developed the new Iconclass Browser which was launched on 10 November 2009.


RKD and Iconclass

Already in 1950s the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History began its collaboration with Henri van de Waal on the development of Iconclass, with the publication of mounted and annotated photographs of Dutch works of art, known as DIAL (Decimal Index of the Art of the Low Countries). From 1950 until 1982, 28 sets of 500 cards were produced, making for a total of 14,000 items. Naturally, DIAL, which is available at various art-historical institutes around the world, can be consulted in the RKD reading room. These DIAL cards, however, cannot be accessed digitally, but some are included in the RKDimages database which is accessible via Iconclass notations.

In addition, the RKD's Iconography department maintains a large collection of image documentations in paintings, drawings, and prints by Dutch and foreign artists, which can be accessed using Iconclass. Only recently, this documentation was expanded significantly with the transfer of similar collections assembled at the University of Leiden and the VU University Amsterdam.

Thanks to Iconclass notations, a large number of artworks have been made accessible in RKDimages, which can be consulted via the RKD website. The RKD's book collection is also arranged by Iconclass. You can use the the Iconclass notation as the key word. RKD acquired the Iconclass software in 2006. The management and the further development of the Iconclass system fits in with the RKD's role as a terminology-managing institution.