The Index of Christian Art was founded in 1917 by Professor Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955), chair of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University from 1924 to 1945. Morey’s interest in the study of iconography inspired him to develop a thematic archive of medieval imagery, structured by his firm belief that an understanding of the history and evolution of iconographical motifs could be used to help date and localize works of medieval art.
The Index initially took the form of a thematic/iconographic index of early Christian and medieval art objects, based on a series of card files housed in two shoe boxes. Soon after, a group of volunteers under the direction of Phila Calder Nye painstakingly began to catalogue every significant detail of every work of art for which they could obtain an illustration. Under director Helen Woodruff (1933 to 1942), the initial format for recording descriptive and bibliographic information was developed; this remains the foundation of our cataloguing system even today.
Although the initial archive was restricted to works dated up to 700 CE, the period under study has since been extended to include selected works up to circa 1550. The goals of the Index have also evolved, and the collection now encompasses a wider geographical, cultural, and typological range consistent with the interpretive and interdisciplinary analysis that has become fundamental to current iconographic studies. While the Index’s original cataloguers hoped that the archive would one day include all known works of medieval art, it is now envisioned as an ongoing, expansive project constantly subject to enrichment by new research and discoveries.
Until 1991, the Index was strictly a print resource, with its main offices housed in the Department of Art & Archaeology in McCormick Hall on the Princeton campus and four satellite copies established for consultation at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University in Washington, D.C., in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome, at the Rijksuniversiteit, Utrecht, and at the University of California, Los Angeles (moved later to the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles). With the expansion of the Index into digital form in 1991, these print copies were no longer updated. In 2017, the online database was migrated to a redesigned digital platform that offer greater access and ease of use to researchers worldwide.
The Index has also served as a scholarly hub for medievalists in multiple disciplines. From the “high seminar” held there in 1935 by Charles Rufus Morey, Kurt Weitzmann, A.M. Friend, and Ernst DeWald to the dozens of scholarly conferences and symposia that have since brought scholars to Princeton from across the globe, we offer a place of intellectual exchange for all scholars with an interest in the meaning and reception of medieval visual culture. Many of the research scholars working at the Index themselves lecture and publish actively in their own fields of expertise, which range from Byzantine textiles to French sumptuary arts, pilgrimage iconography, manuscript patronage, and cultural identity in medieval Iberia. The Index also has served since 1991 as home to Studies in Iconography, a leading journal of iconographic scholarship, which it co-publishes with Medieval Institute Publications.
More than a century after its founding, the Index has far outgrown its original shoe boxes to become the largest specialized archive of medieval iconography anywhere in the world. Thanks to the continuing work of its research staff and the support of the Princeton’s Department of Art & Archaeology, the Index continues to grow and evolve along with the study of medieval art and culture so that it can continue to serve the scholarly goals of researchers at Princeton and beyond.