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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
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

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,, Accessed: 04/11/2010, p289
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
ibid., p39
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,, Accessed: 04/11/2010, p304


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. p50 8 Hasenmueller. Yale University Press.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). by using a social sign manifested visually. 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. 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. lines and volumes). p291 7 Silvia Ferretti (trans. incorporates the „corrective principle‟ for the previous formalistic attempts (Wolfflin‟s in particular). whether it implies either identifying objects and events (the factual meaning) or acknowledging the correspondent emotional responses (the expressional meaning). by Richard Pierce). Cassirer. c1989. 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.8 still presupposing a descriptive approach (enriched by unconscious recognition). p30 Hasenmueller. and Warburg: symbol. 5 Panofsky.motifs (compositions)‟5). 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. the artistic motifs recognised as representing the world of experience. p290 6 2 . outline the configurative cells of analysis. translated into a theoretical language of art. Panofsky. art. New Haven. they are identified as the pre-iconographical stage of Panofsky‟s method – a preliminary which. These basic layers. and history. by including the concept of „pseudo-formal analysis’.

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

thus in a linear structure. Ithaca.. 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> Opposed. religious and philosophical views. p41 12 Michael Podro. the context is refined through the lenses of a personal Weltanshauung. but nevertheless contains in itself the necessity of a critical awareness of context. one work of art – a specific mind-world relation generating the „internal coordination’12 of the work of art. and so on. A synthesis of identification and interpretation. p229 Michael Ann Holly. The critical historians of art. which even if partially shared with other artists of the period. Whilst the secondary subject matter is relevant as a stage of a process. 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). Yale University Press. much similar to the iconographical listing of possible references. Cassirer‟s historical and philosophical analysis10) – the iconological one. motifs. particularly. New Haven. one artist (author of a cultural text in general) and. N. 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.Y. 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. Warburg‟s iconology. Panofsky and the foundations of art history. Cornell University Press. 1982. stories and allegories) reconnect. 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. a restriction must intervene: the context has to be limited to a metonymy. mentalities. but it also signalises the irrelevance of a purely formalistic exercise when it comes to analysing a certain piece. On itself. as long as the language is familiar). The components obtained as part of the visual analysis‟ deconstruction (forms. images. 1984.character of every work of art. still 10 Feretti. As this encyclopaedic knowledge unfolds. iconology is the theoretical approach which results in revealing the intrinsic meaning. p202 11 4 . Consequently.

It merely consists in reviving the Hegelian project of an absolute point of view (an a priori system) from which to consider the past. p298 16 Podro. The symptoms of this „underlying principle’ also function in a reversed manner. Whilst attempting to evoke a historical moment. by surpassing the individual and extending to the more general context.15 Even if iconology intends to offer the perspective of knowledge only distance could provide. p178 14 5 . Panofsky describes the iconological algorithm primarily in contrast to features employed by secondary meanings.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. p303 15 ibid. formal aspects related to style. it does not assume that the historian is a tabula rasa entity. an abstraction lacking human identity.16 Similarly to explaining iconography by means of negatively defining formal analysis. Iconography has the characteristics of a database which collects facts about the date and provenance of a work of art. the 13 Panofsky. whilst demonstrating that historians do more than just projecting or being a product of their own age. iconology also indicates the analogies between consciously retained forms and unconscious contents (indicated by elements like perspective and proportional systems).. 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. p31 Argan & West. manner. The distinctions depart from the two suffixes attached to the same root: -graphy. to the ‘symbolical values’ of Ernst Cassirer‟s terminology. the structural differences between concepts are suggested in the composed word itself. derived from logos (in the sense of „thought‟ or „reason‟). 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.

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

c1979 23 7 . The basic preiconographical description.22 it innovates by means of integrating the historical data into a creative and intuitive intellectual understanding of the significant narratives of culture. The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts.27 The circularity imposed by iconology does not follow the same patterns as the initial linear approach..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). not on abstract modernism). p294 27 Umberto Eco. 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‟. Indiana University Press. Bloomington. p291 25 Panofsky. which studies the formal aspect of objects and events in a particular context. carrying the necessity for a corrective principle contained in the contextual framework newly established. which is considered highly unlikely to render errors.literary subjects. p33 24 Hasenmueller. 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. 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. but it is not the final stage of the process – it merely shifts the direction. that is to say Italian Renaissance and the painting of the Netherlands in the fifteenth century. is subjected to a corrective principle labelled „history of style‟. 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. p300 26 Hasenmueller. iconology does not imply an actual text-support. p294 Ann Holly. quoted by Argan & West. and by rediscovering the humanism of an age.

religious. The source of the necessary „familiarity’ is literature (in the sense of written cultural documents) or oral tradition – either way. intimately related to tradition – and. A corrective principle for iconology would be the „history of cultural symptoms’ or „symbols’. philosophical and social tendencies of the personality. p39 30 Ann Holly. 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). its project is to confer a neutral character to the investigative process. p191 29 8 . 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.’28 In this sense. 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. The intellectual contribution and „synthetic intuition’ in the iconological study is necessary. p35 ibid. ultimately.objects and events are expressed by forms under varying historical conditions. it also extends the purely statistical to a perhaps more intellectual implication. it can be considered that the pre-iconographical corrective principle is of an iconographical order. poetical. in the sense of Cassirer‟s terminology. which emphasises that knowledge should be concerned with „abandoning the sphere of practical life’ and ‟[seeing] the object as in itself it 28 Panofsky.29 Thus the subjective intuition is to be corrected and completed by the historical insight. built upon the thematic (conceptual) structural level.30 Abstract and virtually inaccessible requirement.. this typology is also concerned with how their rearrangements (in order to construct themes) depend on the correspondent historical conditions. period or country under investigation‟. even if it still requires factual knowledge to a certain degree. by an act of imagination.

quoted by Ann Holly.’38 31 Matthew Arnold. a new field of research concerning subjects like sociology and psychoanalysis opens. p297 34 Lacan. ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious’. in Vincent B. 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. London. W. Nevertheless.. Everyman. 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). W.. p14-15 37 ibid.36 Whilst iconography fundaments a language and its intrinsic rules of codified association. ‘The Function of Criticism at the present time’ in Selected Poems and Prose. Leitch (ed.really is‟31 rather than with critical and thus subjective endeavours. p189 32 Hassenmueller. 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.Even if their existence continues they are in constant danger of losing their meaning. and such reality never ceases to require interpretation and reinterpretation. New York.34 Iconology advocates in favour of a collaborative humanistic project. p1169 35 Argan & West. Their reality is symbolic. p44 38 Ernst Cassirer. 1991.33 position which supports Lacan‟s view of the unconscious structured as a language. by shifting the plans.).. p290 33 Argan & West. neither is iconology – not a „key‟ to decoding a definitive meaning of a work of art.. Norton & Co. p304 36 Ann Holly. not physical.32 Essentially. its significance lies in the fact it „forces reassessment of the role of history in explaining art’. Panofsky demonstrates that the intellect is „still another sector or segment of the image‟. from the academic and intellectual to the individual and collective psychology. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (second edition). c2010. the most elaborated stage of Panofsky‟s method rather indicates towards the „elusive underlying cultural principles of representation’. An Essay on Man.35 Nevertheless. p192 9 .

jstor. The University of Chicago Press. Accessed: 04/11/2010 Matthew Arnold. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. W. Vol. „Panofsky. Cassirer. 289-301. Bloomington. 1984 Giulio Carlo Argan and Rebecca West. No. Panofsky and the foundations of art history. The role of the reader: explorations in the semiotics of texts. Meaning in the visual arts: views from the outside: a centennial commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968). Panofsky. University of Chicago Press. Norton & Co. New Haven. and history. „Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art‟. „The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious‟. Princeton. Critical Inquiry.jstor. Chicago. 1991 Umberto Eco. 2 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> (Winter. by Richard Pierce). Critical Interpretation (Spring. Cornell University Press.. in Vincent B. Yale University Press. 1982. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (second edition). c1955 10 . Institute for Advanced study. Indiana University Press. 2.). Vol. in Meaning in the visual arts. Iconography. 297-305. http://www. pp. „The Function of Criticism at the present time‟ in Selected Poems and Prose. Accessed: 04/11/2010 Jacques Lacan. and Semiotics Source‟.).Bibliography Michael Ann Holly. c2010 Irving Lavin (ed. http://www. c1989 Christine Hasenmueller. No. 36. Ithaca.. 1978). 1975). c1979 Silvia Ferretti (trans. „Ideology and Iconology‟. New York. pp. 3. Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics. Everyman. London. and Warburg: symbol. Leitch (ed. W. 1995 Erwin Panofsky.

3 (Spring. 19. 1982 Donald Preziosi (ed. Oxford. New Haven. A companion to art theory.). No. Yale University Press. Zupnick. http://www. 263-273.Michael Podro. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Blackwell. 1961). Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics. 2009 Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde (eds.). The critical historians of art. The art of art history: a critical anthology. Oxford University Press. Accessed: 04/11/2010 11 . „The Iconology of Style (Or Wölfflin Reconsidered)‟. 2002 22/11/2010-19:40:41 <AR202-5-FY_10a1_0920169_37EA4F08897F9B5D1B6FBBCBEB9876DC54052C65> Irving L. pp. Vol.