Erwin Panofsky and Iconography, Part Three


Part Three: Icon, Iconography and Iconology

As has often been pointed out, the exodus of Jewish scholars from Germany was one of the greatest brain drains of talent of the 20th or any other century.  “Hitler shakes the trees, and I pick up the apples.” This famous quote is attributed to Walter Cook who founded the Fine Arts Department of New York University ( now the Institute of Fine Arts, also known as “The Institute) and moved his scholars to a brownstone next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to Harry Bober in “The Gothic Tower and the Stork Club,” Panofsky was “one of the more resplendent golden apples, joining the department in 1931. The ideas of Erwin Panofsky and how they were employed or not have depended upon trends in art history. When Panofsky became part of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University (called “The Institute” by those in the know) in 1933, his iconographical system found a permanent home . The discipline of art history in America was greatly enriched by his intellectual and philosophical approach and put what was still a relatively new field of study in his new country on a sounder footing.

Because many of its scholars were Jewish, art history was hunted from Europe by the Nazis.  They fled to America, bringing with them concepts based upon European philosophy that were  ill-understood by their new students. Traditionally, the American version of his signature idea: iconography, was greatly simplified into a clunky game of matching symbols (icon) to symbolism (iconography), while neglecting the cultural basis for the meanings (iconology). That said, when Panofsky arrived at Princeton with his Kantian-inspired system, he met with opposition from another branch of Kantian thought–formalist art history and yet another bastion of artistic thought, Marxism. For art historians, Marxist thought or the assertion of Karl Marx that the economy was the “secret engine” of society, was a fruitful way of examining a work of art, for a Marxist analysis would remove the “veil” of the “natural” and reveal the economic basis of the work itself. Formalist art historians, however, preferred to look directly at the work itself and not at the society that produced it. Rather than thinking of these two methods as complementing each other or as adding to a fuller picture of the art, the discipline tended to place Formalism and Marxism as polar (and political) opposites.

When Panofsky arrived in America, the formalism of Heinrich Wölfflin’s approach to “style” and the materialism of Marxism had become the leading modes of art historical and art critical thinking. The Marxist approach, exemplified by the writings of Meyer Schapiro (1914-1996), was on full view in Schapiro’s famous  battle with Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of MoMA. Barr’s famous 1936  “Chart” of avant-garde movements in his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art removed art from any historical or cultural context and presented the movements as independent of social forces.  In comparison to Barr’s art-for-art’s sake approach, Schapiro was a life-long Marxist who had more in common with Walter Benjamin than with the more orthodox Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser. Before and after the Second World War, Formalism and Marxism, softened semantically to the “social” approach to art history, were the dominant modes of art history methodology, but, due to its political connections, Marxism waned and Panofsky’s iconography moved to the fore. But when Marxism made a comeback during the sixties and seventies, the symbolic meaning of art receded until the late 1980s and early 1990s with the books of Michael Podro’s The Critical Historians of Art and his student, Michael Ann Holly’s Panofsky’ and the Foundations of Art History. Panofsky’s methods were seen as part of The New Art History or a more modern way of looking at art in historical context, one of Panofsky’s basic tenets.

As Holly’s book outlines, Panofsky’s intellectual antecedents were complex. As an art historian, he felt that his primary task was to make sure that his studies of works of art rested on a firm foundation or to establish an epistemology of art history. In his opinion, the Formalist methodology of Heinrich Wölfflin was founded on a particular judgment or a personal interpretation of the stylistic elements of any given work of art, and that, therefore, the observations of  Wölfflin or any other formalist art historian did not have the necessary epistemological depth. What Panosksy wanted to do was to provide art history with a Kantian a priori, to fix art historical methods in the realms of a universal or necessary judgment. It would take Panofsky two decades to work out his approach and he would deploy his intellectual heritage from pre-war Germany to do so.

For the early art historians, the most important fields of study, indeed the founding fields of the discipline, were the art of Antique, Medieval and Renaissance periods. It is this sweep of Western civilization, told as a series of recurrences of the classical culture and as the struggle to find and retain the powers of reason.  Panofsky was the student of Aby Warburg who was fascinated with the recurrence of persistent motifs in art and literature, stretching from ancient times to the Renaissance. Panofsky’s early writings reflect Warburg’s interest in the motifs of Renaissance art, but, as Michael Podro pointed out, Warburg combined Georg Hegel’s dialectic of conflict: thesis and anti-thesis with Sigmund Freud’s belief that society was forced to repress primal instincts and desires of human beings in order to govern its members. Warburg noted the tensions (dialectic) in Renaissance art, the tensions of psychological repressions, and the struggle of the artists and writers to overcome the “superstitions” of the medieval Church.

Panofsky gently swerved away from his mentor’s Freudian or psychological method and turned to the more secure neo-Kantian approach of philosopher Ernst Cassirer and that of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. As Michael Podro pointed out,

What then could provide an absolute viewpoint form which we might elucidate a painting or a building? Panofsky takes as a model for the kind of interpretation he wants the Kantian conception of what makes a judgment scientific. What makes a judgment about the world a scientific judgment, as opposed to a merely personal report, is its causal character, and this causal character or structure is not, in Kant’s view, derived empirically but is injected into  experience by the mind…What was important for Panofsky was that it was assumed to be a concept we did not derive from experience but one which we brought to experience in order to give it its intelligibility.

The central problem that faces any historian is that of anachronism—-of looking at history from the standpoint of the present and for Panofsky the way to solve this inherent difficulty was to remain firmly fixed in the culture of the work of art itself, not the culture of the present time. The problem of anachronism was also the problem of Formalism, i.e. that observation had to have a causal component beyond the thing observed and reported upon. It was not until 1939 that Panofsky published a series of articles/lectures that certainly stemmed from his work as a professor at the Institute, Studies in Iconology. To study “iconology” is to study the meaning of a work of art: the meaning that was embedded in the culture, the meaning that was in the mind of the artist, consciously or not as a kind of “collective unconscious.” In the introduction of this book, the art historian establishes his methodology: what he was opposed to and how he resolved the problems of meaning and interpretation of works of art. Panofsky began his Studies with this statement:

Iconography is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form. Let us, then, try to define the distinction between subject matter or meaning on the one hand and form on the other…The meaning thus discovered may be called intrinsic meaning or content; it is essential where the two other kinds of meaning, the primary or natural and the secondary or conventional, are phenomenal. It may defined as a unifying principle which underlies and explains both the visible event and its intelligible significance, and which determines even the form in which the visible event takes shape. This intrinsic meaning or content is, of course, as much above the sphere of conscious volitions as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Panofksy established a layered or step-by-step method that was slow and deliberate, requiring an extensive education on not just the work of art but also of its culture of origin. The tripartite iconographical method of layered meanings or strata, has its basis not just in the Warburgian notion of motif but also in the ideas of Saussure. If, for the linguist Saussure, words were signs that were signifiers for the thing signified, than for Panofsky, the work of art could be understood as a visual language in terms of the sign, signifier and the signified or icon, iconography, and iconology. Panofsky continued his opposition to formalism by stating that the “pre-iconographical description” was a “pseudo-formal analysis,” but that this first take was a “practical experience” that was “controlled” by the history of style. Moving up from the bottom to the next layer or level of meaning, Panofsky introduced the “secondary” or “iconographical analysis” that  required “knowledge of literary sources that concerned historical themes or concepts.” It is with the last or highest level of interpretation that Panofsky acknowledged Ernst Cassirer: iconology is the “intrinsic meaning,” that is, the “iconological interpretation” is the history of “cultural symptoms” or the “essential tendencies of the human mind.”

Although subsequently in American art history, Panofsky’s Hegelian methods have often stalled at the iconographical level with few art historians being willing to look for the “symbolic forms” or “symptoms” in works of art.  Part of the reason for the impoverished use of Panofsky is the inevitable loss of intellectual background when the art historian emigrated to America, and another reason for the loss of the philosophical background was the division of universities and colleges into distinct departments, dividing disciplines, like history, art history and philosophy, which were in actuality part of one another into artificially separated entities. As Holly pointed out,

Art historians not acquainted with the background of many of Panofsky’s ideas frequently see in his later work merely a practical program for the deciphering of specific and not-so-hidden symbols in visual images. Iconology, despite Panofsky’s emphasis on semantics, is still understood as only a slightly  more refined and sophisticated version of iconography.

Just as the three layers of meaning combine Saussure and Cassirer, Panofsky’s famous concept of “disguised symbolism,” developed in his 1953 essay Early Netherlandish Painting, reveals his neo-Kantian insistence on finding the epistemology for a work of art and in establishing the epistemology for art history. Art is embedded in a épistémè that is clearly visible in Netherlandish painting of Jan van Eyck, but in Panofsky’s account of late Medieval art in Northern Europe, we find echoes of Warburg. Here is an artist, van Eyck, who is part of a “superstitious” spiritual culture but who is also living in a new world of reason and science. “A way had to be found to reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition,” Panofsky wrote and noted that “The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feeel the need to saturate all its elements with meaning.” To miss this mind set, this struggle between faith and science is to miss, not just Panofsky’s epistemology of art history but also to miss the meaning of the work of art itself.

The first post in the series discussed Panofsky’s intellectual background with the second post explaining the idea of symbolic form.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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