History of the Index

The Index of Christian Art was founded by Professor Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955) in 1917 and has just recently celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of its foundation. Morey succeeded Allan Marquand as chairman of the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University in 1924, a post he maintained until his retirement in 1945. He had a master's degree from the University of Michigan and came to Princeton from the American Academy in Rome in 1906. Morey's initial researches into the field of iconography started as early as 1910, and through these interests he conceived the idea of developing an archive based on a thematic approach. Upon Morey's return to Princeton he began to assemble a thematic / iconographic index of Early Christian and medieval art objects based on a series of card files housed in two shoe boxes. Although the need for such an approach to medieval art had long been wished for, it was, with characteristic modesty that Morey is reputed to have said that it was not initially his idea, but that "only we were fools enough to get on with it." His career and approach to art history have been admirably described by Lavin (1983, 21-25) and Smyth (1993, 111-121).

Charles Rufus Morey

Morey held the firm belief that underlying the whole history of medieval art was a need to know and understand the history and evolution of iconographical themes and concepts which he believed could then be used "to distinguish and localize the schools of Early Christian art more reliably than could style, since Greco-Roman art showed so much uniformity" (Smyth 1993,115). A group of volunteers painstakingly began to record every significant detail of every work of art for which they could obtain an illustration and which was dated to before A.D. 700. The Index has, since its foundation, extended the period under study to include works up to A.D. 1400. More recently, with the project to catalogue the entire holdings of the Morgan Library, New York, we have extended, yet again, the terminus date of the archive to the middle of the sixteenth century.

Thanks to the laborious work, which started in 1917, it is now the most important and largest archive of medieval art anywhere in the world. Nearly two thousand works of art are added to the archive on an annual basis. Under highly-trained professional staff the Index has far outgrown its original card boxes and now occupies specially designed rooms in McCormick Hall, a building it shares with other divisions of the university's Department of Art and Archaeology.

Three copies of the Index are available for consultation in Europe and North America. In 1940 the first copy was established at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University in Washington, D.C. This is the preeminent center for Byzantine studies in the United States. In 1951 Cardinal Spellman presented Pope Pius XII with a copy, and this is still housed in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome. Unfortunately this copy has not been maintained since 2005 and no electronic access is available there. The third copy was acquired by the Rijksuniversiteit, Utrecht, in 1962,; the last copy was housed in the University of California, Los Angeles until 2002 at which stage it was transferred to the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles. These copies, as well as the original at Princeton, are updated and extended every year. The opening hours and conditions of reference for these three copies are listed in this site under Access. All of these copies replicate in every detail, the holdings of the parent site in Princeton. Although restricted to subscribers, the electronic version of the database presently contains approximately 30% of the files which were developed over the years but which are being extended on a weekly basis. This Internet application is available in most major libraries and archives from Japan to North America.

The first objects to be cataloged were Early Christian sarcophagi, which were indexed by Mrs. Alison Smith, later Mrs. Charles MacDonald. In the early period the Index was staffed by volunteers under the leadership of Mrs. Phila Calder Nye (director from 1920 to 1933). It was Helen Woodruff (director from 1933 to 1942) who established the format for recording descriptive and bibliographic information that has remained in use ever since. An eminent scholar, she realized the value of establishing firm guidelines which she published in 1942 and which have been adopted by other archives throughout the world. She was succeeded by William L. M. Burke (director from 1942 to 1951) who in turn was followed by Rosalie B. Green (director from 1951 to 1982). In more recent times Nigel Morgan was director from 1982 to 1988 and was followed by Brendan Cassidy (director from 1988 to 1995). The present director is Colum Hourihane, who was appointed to the post in 1997.


Lavin, Marilyn, The Eye of The Tiger: The Founding and Development of the Department of Art and Archaeology, 1883-1923, Princeton University. Princeton, 1983.

Smyth, Craig Hugh and Lukehart, Peter, The Early Years of Art History in the United States. Princeton, 1993.

Hourihate, Colum, "They stand on his shoulders"; Morey, Iconography, and the Index of Christian Art. Insights and Interpretations, Studies in Celebration of the Eighty-Fifth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art. Princeton, 2002.