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Serpentarium Mundi: A New Digital Resource for Iconography Researchers

Alexei Alexeev

University of Ottawa

Snakes and serpents play prominent roles in mythology, religion, and art and are important subjects in cultural and cross-cultural (comparative) studies (Charlesworth 2010; Morgan 2008; Mundkur 1983). While a substantial body of literature is dedicated to the symbolism of the serpent in antiquity, it has tended to focus on literary sources while largely avoiding a comprehensive and systematic look at the iconographic material (Batto 1992; Fontenrose 1959; Joines 1974; Ogden 2013a, 2013b; Wilson 2001). The described project seeks to rectify this imbalance and provide a significant content contribution (Alexeev, forthcoming).

Serpentarium Mundi is a specialized digital iconography compendium dedicated to snakes/serpents and their manifold derivatives (e.g. dragons). It catalogues representations of real and imaginary ophiomorphs in the visual arts of Old World civilizations from 3000 BC to 650 AD. The compendium’s compositional framework uses the structural metaphor of traditional (print) media and consists of volumes (e.g. Coins), chapters (e.g. Deities), and articles (e.g. Agathodaemon). A minimalist approach is currently adopted: the compendium articles focus on iconographical (visual) records with the textual component limited to brief descriptions and references. The advanced version will include (1) observations on the subjects’ reception in antiquity and a survey of related primary sources; (2) interpretation of the subjects in broader cultural and historical contexts; and (3) surveys of the secondary literature. The project’s strategic goal is to become the ultimate ophidian iconography resource.

The presentation will address the challenges encountered (e.g. current lack of institutional support and funding; project curator’s limited technical expertise); inform on the lessons learned (e.g. need to anticipate the unforeseen complexities of the evolving image classification taxonomies); and report on the discoveries made (e.g. positive identification of the nebulous iconographic subject). I will inform on the project’s methodological contribution to the pioneering field of ontology-based iconography (Gartner 2019; Pavlov et al. 2010; Pavlova-Draganova, Paneva-Marinova, and Pavlov 2011) as well as to the established domains of visual semiotics (Crow 2016; Hölscher 2004; Jappy 2013; Lorenz 2016; Panofsky 1939; Schapiro 1996; Shatford 1986) and knowledge organization (Hjørland 2008; Joudrey, Taylor, and Wisser 2018; Staab and Studer 2016; Szostak 2014; Ørom 2003). I will introduce a novel analytical device, the three-faceted formal semantic indicator (identifier-descriptor-operator), and illustrate its experimental application in the context of the taxonomic classification, contextualization, and interpretation of iconographic types.

Serpentarium Mundi is a multidisciplinary enterprise employing expertise in the fields of classics, religious studies, comparative mythology, ethnozoology, art history, semiotics, and computer science. The project strives to foster a broad interinstitutional and international collaboration. It serves as a prototype of the Specialized On-Line Iconography Database (SOLID) digital framework. The presentation intends to initiate discussion, solicit feedback, and obtain expert advice from specialists in the field of digital classics (database development, cross-domain metadata, content/network analysis, data visualization, and geographic information systems).

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Recent Work in Digital Classics

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