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Review: Serpentarium Mundi

A review of Serpentarium Mundi, a digital iconography compendium on serpents and similar reptilian subjects, directed by Alexei Alexeev

Published onJun 21, 2022
Review: Serpentarium Mundi

Serpentarium Mundi

Project Team
Alexei Alexeev, University of Ottawa

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Andrew Meadows, University of Oxford

Project Overview

Alexei Alexeev

Serpentarium Mundi is a specialized digital iconography compendium dedicated to a ubiquitous artistic subject: the snake (serpent) and its manifold derivatives (e.g., composite creatures). It catalogues representations of real and imaginary ophiomorphs and their collaterals (e.g., other reptiles) in the visual arts of ancient civilizations of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Current serpent-related research tends to focus on the documentation and analysis of literary sources, while largely avoiding a comprehensive and systematic look at the iconographic material or using it merely as an illustrative auxiliary. This project seeks to rectify this literature-vs.-iconography imbalance and provide a significant content contribution.

The compendium’s compositional framework uses the structural metaphor of traditional media and consists of volumes, organized according to artistic medium or function (e.g., Coins). Each volume is divided into specialized chapters based on the type of iconographical subject (e.g., Deities & Spirits). Each chapter consists of articles focused on a specific subject (e.g., Apollo). Each article includes three common components: (1) a gallery (a complete catalogue of iconographic types represented by standard-size figures featuring the carefully selected artefacts); (2) a library (a survey of related primary sources and a selection of literary quotations crucial for the artefacts’ iconographic interpretation); and (3) a registry (visualized geographical, chronological, statistical, content/network-analysis, and other pertinent data). The articles’ organizational structure is guided by the following methodological scheme: iconography (analytic/proto-iconic stage: pictographic inventorization) → iconology (synthetic/proper-iconic stage: descriptive identification) → iconosophy (hermeneutic/meta-iconic stage: contextual interpretation).

The project website serves as a test prototype of the Specialised On-Line Iconography Database (SOLID) digital framework. All work on the project is being done by Alexei Alexeev using his personal resources. One of the project’s major challenges is the curator’s limited technical expertise. The website is being developed using the proprietary web-authoring application Adobe Dreamweaver. Its deployment enabled the building of an extensive network of CSS-controlled HTML pages, but some essential functional components requiring advanced programming expertise — the most urgent of which is the search capability — are still missing. The transition from the existing “pilot” to the fully functional version will be feasible after stable external financial support is secured. The project’s ultimate goal is to convert this individual research initiative into a fully citable, metadata-driven scholarly resource.

Classification is the crucial component of the project’s knowledge-organizing process. The project’s ontology provides a conceptual model for describing a system within this particular semantic domain and assists in limiting the complexity and conversion of data into information and knowledge. It also facilitates effective trans-domain communication and thus provides the foundation for knowledge dissemination and multi-/interdisciplinary scholarly collaboration. To facilitate the development of classification taxonomies, a novel analytical device, the three-faceted formal semantic indicator, was developed. It represents the three main ontological categories: beings, properties, and relations. Currently, there are fourteen identifiers (e.g., hero), seven descriptors (e.g., morphology), and five operators (e.g., conflict). The device is intended to contribute to future ontology-based iconography research as an instrument facilitating the description, classification, contextualization, and interpretation of images. It could also be potentially incorporated as a functional component into computational procedures involving the machine-readable ontologies.

Serpentarium Mundi aims to promote a better understanding of the richness and complexities of serpent mythology and symbolism among academic and non-academic audiences. The project seeks collaborators with expertise in the fields of classics, comparative mythology, religious iconography, art history, digital museology, visual semiotics, knowledge organization, and computer science.

Project Review

Andrew Meadows

Serpentarium Mundi is an online iconographic resource created by Alexei Alexeev. It aims to catalogue the iconography of snakes, related reptiles, and mythological creatures, covering material from “Old World civilisations” up to 650 CE (coverage may be expanded in the future). 

The primary division of material in Serpentarium Mundi is by artistic medium, with six broad categories: sculptures and reliefs, adornment and tools, coins, vases, paintings and mosaics, and manuscripts. A division by medium is a unique choice for a website devoted to iconography, as iconography is independent of medium and often crosses over from one medium to another in interesting ways. Each category is subdivided into six thematic sections: real animals, fantastic creatures, deities and spirits, heroes and victims, the curiously titled “notables and anonyms,” and objects and symbols. 

The section on coins gives an impression of a further breakdown into specific subject headings (e.g., Real Animals: Crocodile, Lizard, Snake, Turtle). Given the emphasis on serpents in the project, it would perhaps make more sense for “snake” to appear first, rather than being alphabetized under “s.” Some headings link to a gallery of images, a “library” of source texts, and a “registry” with a map and further metadata. Images are arranged according to types with complex unique identifiers and are tagged with a series of “semantic indicators.” Both identifiers and indicators appear to be idiosyncratic and developed for this website, although they could find broader application in the future, perhaps through linked open data. 

The resource has been in the making since 2013 and online since 2016, yet it is very much a work in progress with ongoing developments in functionality (e.g., keyword search is forthcoming) and content (most sections mention articles to be completed between 2023 and 2027 and only a few sample images of coins have been included). Given the level of detail of each entry, it is not surprising that only a few small segments of the resource have been completed and the great majority of the work is projected for the distant future. 

While a laudable project, like many attempts at iconographic classification, the resource struggles to find a balance between managing terminology and offering complete description. Beyond being devoted to snakes, the resource is also intended to “contribute to future ontology-based iconography research” and to demonstrate a framework for classification called SOLID (Specialised On-Line Iconography Database), developed by the project director. In the documentation, the author describes the website’s three-tier methodology, distinguishing between “iconography,” “iconology,” and “iconosophy.” This partition, created by the project director, roughly matches Erwin Panofsky’s distinction between “pre-iconography,” “iconography,” and “iconology. The project director might consider further articulating how their methodology builds on Panofsky’s and specifying how the website improves on existing online iconographic ontologies such as IconClass (which admittedly comes with its own set of problems). Serpentarium Mundi is a project with promise that will be all the more evident with elaboration on method and the proposed development of fuller sets of data and images.

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