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