Etymologically, "iconophor" comes from Greek, meaning "bearer" or "transporter" (...phor) of image (ikono..). It seems that it was used formerly in Byzantine Christianity, to define an "icon bearer", in a direct or symbolic sense.

In graphic and print art today, Iconophor is a term that refers to a specific form of illustration (usually book illustration) characterized by the fact that the names of the objects represented in it start with a given letter. Its origins lie in medieval illuminations, though the abecedarian connection was usually coincidental in the Middle Ages.

The word iconophor was coined by Thora van Male, a French university professor; her book, "Art Dico", presents a historical panorama of the use of such illustrations in French dictionaries. She is currently working on a website to facilitate the study of iconophors ( [http://artdico.upmf-grenoble.fr/index.php?/ ART DICO homepage] ).

The principle of creating an artform around a letter, and illustrating it with items whose name starts with that letter is not a recent invention. Some of the artists who designed them are:
* 14th century: Hans Holbein (according to Anatole de Courde de Montaiglon, the letters M to Z of Holbein’s "Alphabet de la Mort" are based on this principle); Paulini (certain passages of Ovid’s "Metamorphoses")
* 17th century: Claude Mellan (French); Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (Italian, "Alfabeto in Sogno") The principle is also commonly used in ABC primers, and often their very mainspring.

As of the late 17th century illustrations of this type start appearing in the ornamentation of French dictionaries. The earliest of these is César de Rochefort’s "Dictionnaire général et curieux" (1685); the only iconophor in it is the ornamental initial letter at A, for Annunciation.

The first lexicographical work to be ornamented with iconophors from A to Z was the supplement to Diderot and d'Alembert's "Encyclopédie" (1776). Congruent with the full title of the "Encyclopédie" itself ("Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers"), many of the ornamental initial letters portray occupations. Here, A for astronomer.

When, in the 1830s, the illustrated press and illustrated books took off in western Europe, the iconophoric ornamentation of dictionaries also took off. The first dictionary with ornamental head-pieces (as opposed to mere initial letters) from A to Z was Napoléon Landais' "Dictionnaire général et grammatical" (1834). These wood-engraved headpieces were produced in one of the large Parisian wood-engraving shops, Andrew Best and Leloir. A for abondance, agriculture, aigle (eagle), alouettes (larks), amitié (friendship), ara (South American parrot), Arab, archer, arquebusier, astronomie, avare (scrooge), aveugle (blind person).

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  • iconophor —    , iconophoric, meta iconophor    An iconophor is an image whose first distinctive feature consists of the letter which begins the name of its referent. Iconophoric is the adjectival form. A meta iconophor is an image whose first distinctive… …   Glossary of Art Terms

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