Iconography versus Iconology in Erwin Panofsky‟s method

Erwin Panofsky‟s attempt to structure elements of art theory previously accessible on empirical
bases is essential to the point of reaching austerity. Dissecting responses fuelled by intuition

22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65>

rather than historical accuracy to the work of art, the project materialised in „Iconography and
Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art‟ is primarily methodological, and it
results in layers of meaning, progressive analysis and rigorous studies of the newly delimited
concepts – a „taxonomy’ which draws connections between the „meaning in art and a ”history of
meaning”’.1 The method unfolds in a preliminary (pre-iconographical) and two main stages of
analytical development (the „operations of research’2), iconography and iconology, focusing on
their structural differences, only to return to them and coherently link what has been isolated,
correct what has been left incomplete and condense everything into „one organic and indivisible
process’.3
The essay begins by defining iconography as a branch of art history, instantly infusing the text
with an idea of structure, referring to a specialised area of expertise. The introduction states a
particular intention: to delimit the form (which becomes, from an iconological perspective, a
„variety of the image‟4) from the „subject matter’ or „meaning’; the emphasis on the two types of
approach, the formalist and the iconographical one, signalises the need for an efficient
separation between the empirically extended, biased by cultural content, grasp of form
(Wolfflin‟s method in particular, defined as „largely an analysis of motifs and combinations of
1

Christine Hasenmueller, ‘Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics Source’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 3, Critical Interpretation (Spring, 1978), pp. 289-301, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The
American Society for Aesthetics, http://www.jstor.org/stable/430439, Accessed: 04/11/2010, p289
2
Erwin Panofsky, ‘Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art’ in Meaning in the
visual arts, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982, c1955, p39
3
ibid., p39
4
Giulio Carlo Argan and Rebecca West, ‘Ideology and Iconology’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Winter, 1975), pp.
297-305, The University of Chicago Press, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342905, Accessed: 04/11/2010, p304

1

p291 7 Silvia Ferretti (trans. The basic example on which Panofsky builds distinctions between the content‟s form and its meaning is an event related to gestural conventions: a gentleman lifting his hat to greet an acquaintance. Panofsky. and the literary network of meanings underlying a work of art – especially considering the spirit on an age which required all disciplines including the humanist to function similarly to their scientific models. art. 5 Panofsky. incorporates the „corrective principle‟ for the previous formalistic attempts (Wolfflin‟s in particular). Cassirer. Any form of attaching labels to these changes involves a previous familiarity with the subject and is therefore transferred into the universe of subject matter. outline the configurative cells of analysis. the artistic motifs recognised as representing the world of experience. Yale University Press. translated into a theoretical language of art.motifs (compositions)‟5). p50 8 Hasenmueller. These basic layers. c1989. New Haven. by including the concept of „pseudo-formal analysis’. Panofsky deduces that a new layer of understanding (iconology – reminiscent of Warburg‟s critical iconology7) is to necessarily complement iconography and extend the intertextuality of the latter in the realm of a comprehensive cultural process. by Richard Pierce). the text suggests that a correct formal approach means no more recognition than perceiving the rearrangement of a certain configuration (consisting in patterns of colour. by using a social sign manifested visually. and Warburg: symbol.6 More than just applying „corrective principles’ to the previous theoretical and analytical endeavours and thus opening a debate aimed at demonstrating the crucial importance of a system when studying works of art (in general and 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> particular). p290 6 2 . p30 Hasenmueller. whether it implies either identifying objects and events (the factual meaning) or acknowledging the correspondent emotional responses (the expressional meaning). and history. they are identified as the pre-iconographical stage of Panofsky‟s method – a preliminary which. lines and volumes).8 still presupposing a descriptive approach (enriched by unconscious recognition).

the first 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> substantial and semi-conscious stage is the iconographical one. which comprises of secondary subject matters – cultural conventions attached to the perceived material. the articulated meaning conveyed by images acts similarly to the consciously formulated messages codified by means of language. the stage approached by iconology – essential in the sense of constancy. Simultaneously. the units of meaning resulted from this juxtaposition are images. iconography not only marks the intertextual 9 ibid. where identifying objects and events is not problematic. In this sense. due to the awareness it involves and thus to the process of actively accessing mental content. p291 3 . Despite the fact that natural meaning provides the data for a further analytical process.The factual and the expressional. When compared to the primary meaning. In this sense. which subsequently composed produce either stories or. which has a sensible quality. the intrinsic meaning is situated on a higher level than the conscious refining of data and subconscious emotional response – functioning in a similar way to the super-ego.. in the case of conveying abstract ideas in culturally recognisable forms. of being independent of exterior factors but based on literary sources and tradition as opposed to innate elements of cultural background. by indiscriminately listing all these options. along with the primary one. The secondary subject matter becomes accessible by joining individual or combined artistic motifs with the relevant themes („concepts‟). only some of which are adequate in every case. a work of art). personifications and symbols –allegories. as immediate and simultaneous responses to a given sign (in this case. constitute the primary (natural) meaning. becomes phenomenal when considered in relation to the intrinsic meaning. secondary subject matter.9 Iconography would therefore open a virtually endless realm of possibilities and references. addressing the faculty of perception whilst excluding any further conscious contribution – at least in a culturally compatible context. the conventional one appears as intelligible. which is sensible. in Freudian terms.

motifs. As this encyclopaedic knowledge unfolds. Whilst the secondary subject matter is relevant as a stage of a process. p229 Michael Ann Holly. images. the context is refined through the lenses of a personal Weltanshauung. stories and allegories) reconnect. but nevertheless contains in itself the necessity of a critical awareness of context. 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> Opposed. the intrinsic one is circular – describing a circulus methodicus which returns to the previous operations in order to decode their results in a new light („the circular flow of interpretation’11). Ithaca. iconology is the theoretical approach which results in revealing the intrinsic meaning.Y. much similar to the iconographical listing of possible references. Consequently. Cassirer‟s historical and philosophical analysis10) – the iconological one. 1982. which even if partially shared with other artists of the period. as incorporated into the extensive notion of context – the „underlying principle’ which provides the historian with a deeper understanding of the realities contemporary to a specific work of art: social and cultural aspects. 1984. N. religious and philosophical views. one artist (author of a cultural text in general) and. particularly. yet complementary to this iconographical analysis is a comprehensive operation which validates the entire method whilst crystallising previous intentions to systematise the study of cultural history (Burckhardt‟s historical views. On itself. this stage attempts an exhaustive identification of potential images based on the correct interpretation of motifs (which would perhaps be as easy to recognise as words.. p202 11 4 . mentalities. thus in a linear structure. as long as the language is familiar). Cornell University Press.character of every work of art. still 10 Feretti. and so on. Warburg‟s iconology. a restriction must intervene: the context has to be limited to a metonymy. New Haven. but it also signalises the irrelevance of a purely formalistic exercise when it comes to analysing a certain piece. one work of art – a specific mind-world relation generating the „internal coordination’12 of the work of art. p41 12 Michael Podro. Yale University Press. The components obtained as part of the visual analysis‟ deconstruction (forms. Panofsky and the foundations of art history. A synthesis of identification and interpretation. The critical historians of art.

Iconography has the characteristics of a database which collects facts about the date and provenance of a work of art. to the ‘symbolical values’ of Ernst Cassirer‟s terminology. Panofsky describes the iconological algorithm primarily in contrast to features employed by secondary meanings. The distinctions depart from the two suffixes attached to the same root: -graphy.15 Even if iconology intends to offer the perspective of knowledge only distance could provide. iconology also indicates the analogies between consciously retained forms and unconscious contents (indicated by elements like perspective and proportional systems). formal aspects related to style. whilst demonstrating that historians do more than just projecting or being a product of their own age. It merely consists in reviving the Hegelian project of an absolute point of view (an a priori system) from which to consider the past. p178 14 5 .retains the intrinsic specificity of each text – essential for a historian whose attempt is to recreate the creative process and its atmosphere. derived from the Greek graphein („to write‟) and –logy. The symptoms of this „underlying principle’ also function in a reversed manner. the 13 Panofsky. but also by discovering the personal shaped by exterior reality: the „symbolical values’ are a „document of the artist’s personality‟13 which may reveal unconscious cultural and spiritual attitudes (the iconological themes remind of Jung‟s collective unconscious14) and unintentional elements in general. an abstraction lacking human identity. it does not assume that the historian is a tabula rasa entity. manner. p31 Argan & West. derived from logos (in the sense of „thought‟ or „reason‟). the structural differences between concepts are suggested in the composed word itself. p298 16 Podro.16 Similarly to explaining iconography by means of negatively defining formal analysis. by surpassing the individual and extending to the more general context. Thus iconology operates not only by studying the objective (a certain historical context) by means of the 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> subjective (a certain artistic vision) and the whole by means of a part. Whilst attempting to evoke a historical moment. p303 15 ibid..

but also for becoming aware of one‟s own identity and positioning within history. the two stages are so intimately interlinked that it becomes difficult and artificial to attempt a definitive separation of this interplay. the linear stages are reversed and each alters the result of its precedents – they constitute cycles rather than sequences. where the part can be understood only in relation to the whole and vice versa. the latter implies a capacity of synthesis and a substantial vocation – not only for recognising patterns and interpreting history and culture. p299 n8 18 6 . in the demands they subject the historian to: whilst the former does not require any intellectual contribution except establishing and labelling categories. nevertheless. p292 ibid.18 The striking distinction between iconography and iconology lies.. stereotypical motifs which undoubtedly are carriers of well established meanings (a particular ‘sign-function’17) – and its task is not to question their validity. in Panofsky‟s terms. the final output of an iconographical operation cannot by obtained unless within a hermeneutical circle. p32 21 Hasenmueller. is provided by iconology as a result of a comprehensive contextual investigation. sensible interaction with the analysed period (Panofsky‟s method focuses on an art which „balances naturalism and idealism‟21 in extensive narratives of 17 Hasenmueller. p297 19 ibid. iconology crystallises significance as resulted from „conceptual ordering’.19 The standard definition for iconology is „iconography turned interpretative‟. Whilst both comprise of essential. the iconographical approach is also concerned with collecting and classifying cultural commonplaces.materialisation of themes by means of artistic motifs and so on.. Whilst iconography is concerned with a coded form of meaning. mainly belonging to the realm of archival and bibliographic study. intelligible content and focus on cultural documents in a retrospective approach which excludes the direct. The unquestionable „evidence’.20 utilising the same material in the sense of literary sources. p298 20 Panofsky. therefore. which is furthermore collected and 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> mechanically ordered and classified.

which is considered highly unlikely to render errors. a work of art (along with its constituents) ceases to be a text suspended in space and time – thus the stages which provided the preliminary data have to also be „corrected‟. Bloomington. p300 26 Hasenmueller.23 Iconology surpasses the articulate of iconography24 and does not constitute the basis of 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> analysis in the same way iconography delivers unrefined data (though it fundaments the process of re-creating25 the historical object). p294 Ann Holly.22 it innovates by means of integrating the historical data into a creative and intuitive intellectual understanding of the significant narratives of culture. The basic preiconographical description. Indiana University Press. p294 27 Umberto Eco. identifying paradigmatic relationships between art and literature26 and indicating the previous stages require decoding in the light of the newly discovered meanings and rules of correlation – much in the sense of Umberto Eco‟s theory of literary reception. The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts.. iconology does not imply an actual text-support. but it is not the final stage of the process – it merely shifts the direction. p291 25 Panofsky. and by rediscovering the humanism of an age. not on abstract modernism). c1979 23 7 . which implies that a reader‟s previously acquired meanings and field of further expectations continuously changes with every read word. Once placed within the analytical horizon of reception and cultural study. this device is concerned with rectifying an analysis biased by contemporary approaches: „we are reading “what we see” according to the manner in which 22 ibid.literary subjects. is subjected to a corrective principle labelled „history of style‟. that is to say Italian Renaissance and the painting of the Netherlands in the fifteenth century. carrying the necessity for a corrective principle contained in the contextual framework newly established. which studies the formal aspect of objects and events in a particular context. p33 24 Hasenmueller.27 The circularity imposed by iconology does not follow the same patterns as the initial linear approach. quoted by Argan & West.

in the sense of Cassirer‟s terminology.’28 In this sense. ultimately. The source of the necessary „familiarity’ is literature (in the sense of written cultural documents) or oral tradition – either way. poetical. p191 29 8 . p35 ibid. its project is to confer a neutral character to the investigative process. intimately related to tradition – and. religious.29 Thus the subjective intuition is to be corrected and completed by the historical insight.. philosophical and social tendencies of the personality. it can be considered that the pre-iconographical corrective principle is of an iconographical order. as well as the iconographical rectification belongs to the realm of iconology: a „history of types’ which allows for an intellectual contribution in an exclusively statistic approach. Whilst based on the fundamental cells of meaning (the objects and events which constitute artistic 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> motifs).objects and events are expressed by forms under varying historical conditions. built upon the thematic (conceptual) structural level. period or country under investigation‟. The intellectual contribution and „synthetic intuition’ in the iconological study is necessary. this typology is also concerned with how their rearrangements (in order to construct themes) depend on the correspondent historical conditions. p39 30 Ann Holly.30 Abstract and virtually inaccessible requirement. A corrective principle for iconology would be the „history of cultural symptoms’ or „symbols’. the „history of cultural symptoms’ implies the same demands as Matthew Arnold‟s concept of disinterestedness. but it is „correct‟ only as long as it is not altered by the interpreter‟s psychology and Weltanshauung – state which Panofsky considers as attainable when using documents „bearing witness to the political. by an act of imagination. even if it still requires factual knowledge to a certain degree. it also extends the purely statistical to a perhaps more intellectual implication. which emphasises that knowledge should be concerned with „abandoning the sphere of practical life’ and ‟[seeing] the object as in itself it 28 Panofsky.

London. Everyman. p189 32 Hassenmueller. the most elaborated stage of Panofsky‟s method rather indicates towards the „elusive underlying cultural principles of representation’. Leitch (ed. iconology examines the conscious and unconscious rules which originate the language and how the visual and linguistic emergence occurs „on the surface of human history‟37 – reinventing a project which could prevent what Ernst Cassirer signalised as the emblematic fatality of works of art: „Human works. W. not physical. p192 9 . neither is iconology – not a „key‟ to decoding a definitive meaning of a work of art. its significance lies in the fact it „forces reassessment of the role of history in explaining art’.. c2010. in which different disciplines 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> find common ground in the study of culture rather than of a specific subject analysis. p44 38 Ernst Cassirer. a new field of research concerning subjects like sociology and psychoanalysis opens. by shifting the plans. Norton & Co.36 Whilst iconography fundaments a language and its intrinsic rules of codified association. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (second edition). p304 36 Ann Holly.35 Nevertheless. p14-15 37 ibid. New York. W. if iconography is not the exclusive solution to decoding artistic texts (considering that the same iconographical reading could be applied to two very different works). Their reality is symbolic.really is‟31 rather than with critical and thus subjective endeavours.33 position which supports Lacan‟s view of the unconscious structured as a language..Even if their existence continues they are in constant danger of losing their meaning. Nevertheless. 1991. from the academic and intellectual to the individual and collective psychology. quoted by Ann Holly. p297 34 Lacan. in Vincent B.34 Iconology advocates in favour of a collaborative humanistic project. Panofsky demonstrates that the intellect is „still another sector or segment of the image‟.. and such reality never ceases to require interpretation and reinterpretation. p1169 35 Argan & West.32 Essentially.. p290 33 Argan & West. ‘The Function of Criticism at the present time’ in Selected Poems and Prose.).’38 31 Matthew Arnold. An Essay on Man. ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious’.

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