Index of Christian Art, Princeton University


A review of The Index of Christian Art (Princeton University, Princeton NJ, United States of America)

A Level McCormick Hall
Department of Art & Archaeology
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544-1018

Monday-Friday 9am-4pm (mid-June to mid-September)
Monday-Friday 9am-5pm (mid-September to mid-June)
Closed weekends, major holidays, and for two weeks at Christmas.

No appointment required.

The Index of Christian Art at Princeton University (ICA) remains a foundational resource for iconographic study and the largest collection of medieval art in the world. While the ICA should prove a valuable resource for specialists of early Christianity as well as medievalists, those working on the early modern period could also benefit from this hoard. In what follows, I outline the history of the ICA, the archive at Princeton, and ICA resources beyond the Princeton collection.

History of the Index

Founded by Charles Rufus Morey in 1917, the ICA began with Morey’s vision to create a systematic, comprehensive iconographic index of surviving early and medieval Christian art up to the year 700. With a group of volunteers, he began work on the Index by creating a catalogue of iconographic subjects as well as files of photographs for the indexed objects. Over the years, work has continued steadily on the Index. While the ICA has clearly made progress in collecting and cataloguing the extant record of medieval Christian art, it has also kept pace with new discoveries and changes in the field. This has meant expanding the scope both geographically and temporally (now covering materials up to c.1400).

The ICA is an excellent example of an archive that increasingly crosses disciplinary boundaries: the time-frame covers some of the earliest Christian iconography through to the mid-sixteenth century; the geographical scope includes Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, with recent additions representing more marginalized regions such as Ethiopia, Syria, and Armenia; and media range across manuscripts, sculpture, paintings, textiles, and more. Four other physical copies of the Index exist: at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, DC (since 1940); the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome (since 1951, though it has not been maintained since 2005); the Rijksuniversiteit in Utrecht (since 1962); and the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles (since 2002, previously at the University of California, Los Angeles). In 1991, the Index began moving to an electronic database, now available online (, accessible via subscription).

The Index at Princeton

When entering the Index at Princeton, the most striking feature is the physical monument to its history: the massive card catalogue of indexed iconographic subjects, linked to thousands of photographic files of primary materials in the file drawers along the walls. Both the catalogue and the photographic files are systematically organized, in the same organizational scheme (albeit expanded) employed since Morey’s early work on the Index. Every drawer—in the catalogue as well as the drawers of photographs—is meticulously organized. A visitor to the Index would be wise to plan more than one day to work with these files. Although much of the Index has migrated to the digital database, the physical files still contain some information not available online. This is especially true of the rows of drawers at the end, dedicated to bibliographic cross-references. Reproductions of entries and photographs from either the physical files or the online database are permissible for personal uses. The Index also includes a spacious reading room, computers to access the online database, a large library of books, and offices for the staff.

The library at the Index comprises around five thousand books on topics informing art history, as well as over fifty microfilms. (A complete list of books at the ICA is available online: During my time at the Index, I was only able to scratch the surface of these holdings. Yet, for my own work, most striking were a number of rare books available in the holdings: various versions of the Vulgate, such as early modern printings (both Jerome’s and the Clementine) and the more recent edition by Bonifatius Fischer; as well as a first edition of Johann Albert Fabricius’ Codex Apocryphus: Novi Testamenti (Hamburg, 1703). I was particularly impressed (and serendipitously surprised) by the ability to consult Fabricius’ edition at the Index while conducting research on artistic representations of apocryphal apostolic Acts, since I had previously relied on unreliably digitized versions online. These specific titles give an idea of the types of treasures in the ICA library.

I had several conversations with staff members, who were congenial, ready to help, and welcoming. In this spirit, they offered a tour and introduction to the Index, showed off the library, talked about specific research interests, and checked in regularly to make sure that I was getting the most out of my time there.

The ICA’s location at the heart of the Princeton University campus is also a major benefit to scholars of medieval and early modern periods, since other major resources are within walking distance. Of these, the Firestone Memorial Library is a treasure trove: it houses Princeton’s large research library as well as the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Most notable of these holdings are the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library and the privately owned Scheide Library—both famous and extensive collections. The Princeton University Art Museum also houses many medieval artifacts in its galleries. Also worth taking time to explore is the University Chapel, a beautiful monument of early-twentieth-century new-Gothic architecture.

Beyond Princeton

The ICA raises questions about the characteristics of archives as well as their functions as scholarly resources in a digital age. The Index is not a traditional archive, since it does not contain primary documents but a vast catalogue of materials around the world. This aspect is not, of course, a drawback, but the great feature on which the pride of the Index rests. As a hub of information, the Index at Princeton remains a vital testament to the continued need for coherent, systematic reference systems of collected data for scholarly consultation. In an age of digital curation, these issues are further compounded by the growth of online collections, and the ICA has kept in step with these developments through the creation of their online database.

While the heart of the ICA is the physical index, the online database now contains around 80,000 records and over 100,000 images in black and white as well as color. Many of the images in the online database are not published elsewhere, containing a valuable supplement to the physical records. Much of this work has been accomplished due to significant partnerships with archival institutions around the world, including the Brooklyn Museum Collection of Coptic Art, the Morgan Library, and the Paul van Moorsel Centre at Leiden University. Related to the digital presence of the ICA are a number of resources hosted online. For example, the ICA have received several collections of photographs from scholars of art history, and these are hosted on the website apart from the formal database of the Index. Some highlights include The Evelyn Thomas Database of Medieval English Embroidery, The Jane Hayward Database of Medieval Art, The John Plummer Database of Medieval Manuscripts, and The Lois Drewer Calendar of Saints in Byzantine Manuscripts and Frescos.

Continued support by scholars and libraries around the world has also greatly expanded the purview of the ICA. Spurred on by Colum Hourihane, director of the ICA since 1991, the Index contributes to the academic community with a robust output of scholarship on art history. For instance, it is home of the journal Studies in Iconography (since 1999), and has been instrumental in publishing a series of monographs and edited collections on art historical subjects—some published on their website. Scholarly activities at the Index are also strong, as it regularly hosts conferences and colloquia.

All of this speaks to the enduring vivacity of the Index and the quality of the archive.

Brandon W. Hawk
Medieval Studies Program
University of Connecticut

Image: ICA card catalogue of indexed iconographic subjects. Photograph by Brandon Hawk.

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