Critique of Archaeological Reason
6. Critical reviews

Erwin Panofsky

Giorgio Buccellati – February 2016

See also Panofsky under EXCERPTS.

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The term “iconology”

Other than in the title of his 1939 book, the word “iconology” or its derivates are used only twice in Panofsky 1939 Studies (pp. 49, 89), and only once in Panofsky 1955 Meaning (except for the Introduction, see presently). It does not occur in the other major publications by Panofsky.

It occurs, however, several times in the introduction to Panofsky 1955 Meaning (pp. 31-33, 38-40). And what is particularly significant is that, while this introduction is the reprise of the introduction to Panofsky 1939 Studies), which is in turn the reprise of an article published in 1932 (“Zum Problem der Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst,” Logos 211, pp. 103-119), the references to iconology are for the most part found only in the latest version. Here, in addition, we find a note that explains (p. 31 f.) the meaning of the term as opposed to iconography.

The term also occurs in the preface to the 1962 edition of Panofsky 1939 Studies (p. v), where Panofsky argues against a critic who had objected to the “general validity of the ‘iconological’ method for the interpretaiton of Renaissance and Baroque art”: but the argument is about details of specific pictures, and not about methodology.

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The scope of theory

The discrepancy between the prominent use of the term in the title of Panofsky 1939 Studies and the practical non-existence of the term within the body of Panofsky’s work is significant. The relative profusion of the term in just one item, the revised introduction to Panofsky 1955 Meaning points unequivocally, I believe, to two facts.

The first is that the term as such was introduced as an afterthought by Panofsky in his work. In spite of the fact that he chose it for his title, and in spite of the fact that it has become inextricably tied to his name, it was in no way central to his thinking.

The second is that this is a reflection of a deeper state of affairs: Panofsky’s concern for theory is in effect marginal. It is not only that the amount of space devoted to it is extremely limited (the famous three levels of analysis are contained in just a few pages of Panofsky 1955 Meaning, pp.28-32, plus the chart on p. 40 f.). More importantly, the impact on the actual text of his other works is minimal. It appears as though, reflecting almost casually on the concerns with which he was approaching and assessing specific works of art, he felt the need to summarize, almost in passing, his own methodology. And even this summary is, in the final analysis, rather skimpy and not particularly well thought out.

And yet. The disproportionate success of the term and of this very brief methodological summary, is indicative of a greater weight to the argument than Panofsky himself envisaged. This we should delineate, in order to understand the significance it also has for our concerns.

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The three “strata”

The meaning of an iconological analysis may best be understood in its contrast with the other two “strata”, as Panofsky calls what are normally termed “levels.” I list them here with a set of criteria that can help in defining the proper nature of these “strata.”

The first criterion relates to the degree to which the type of analysis “refers” to a dimension other than that of the work itself. A description of shapes is non-referential if it is based only on geometric values, it is “formal” in the sense that it considers only the form of each element. It is instead referential if it attributes values to these shapes, either at the level of a simple, elemental correlation (a woman with a halo is a saint) or at the level of a more complex, systemic set of correlations (the woman is interpeted as Mary in an Annunciation scene).

The second criterion, “inclusiveness,” relates to the way in which the analysis does or does not include culture bound dimensions. It is open ((e)-tic) if it relates only to universal factors, such as colors or measurements, it is closed if it bound by a cultural dimension – and this again can be either simple (bidimensional: woman ~ halo) or complex (multidimensional: the full nature of Mary is explained on the basis of theology etc.).

The third criterion is borrowed fron linguistics: morphology describes the forms (“morphs”) in their distributional arrays; lexicon and semantics establish a simple referential link to the world; and semiotics explores deeper into the relationship between an element seen as a sign and the various levels of signification that are behind it.


"strata" pre-iconographic iconographic iconological
type of analysis non-referential referential
formal elemental systemic
inclusiveness open closed
non-dimensional bidimensional: surface structure multidimensional: deep structure
linguistics morphology lexicon, semantics semiotics

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Pre-iconographic or formal analysis

Formal analysis envisages “pure forms,” so that, stricto sensu one should not even reach a level of definition were one might identify a form as “man” or “horse.” Panofsky refers back for this to Woelfflin 1886 Prolegomena (cf. also Woelfflin 1915 Kunstgeschichtliche) who underscores, in effect, the need to define shapes and their configuration. Such an analysis, wholly neutral as to identifications (Panofsky calls it “pre-iconographic”), is the most objective starting point, one that is anchored to the uncontrovertible observation of primary data (shapes and such).

This is relevant for the concerns of Buccellati G 2017 C A R because it corresponds to the level of purely grammatical analysis, where forms are seen in close correlation with each other, both for their definition as single elements and for the rules that condition their clustering (as with phonology, morphology and syntax in a linguistic grammar). Formal analysis is purely non- or inner-referential in the sense that it does not link any elements to any other element outside the system.

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iconographic or referential analysis

Panofsky’s definition of the second level of analysis, that of iconography, as “secondary or conventional subject matter” is not particulary felicitous. A “conventional” meaning is the one that links, in everybody’s understanding (hence “conventional”), a certain figurative “image” with a recognized aspect of reality – e.g., thirteen men sitting a table with the Last Supper. This is of course correct, but it does not seem to clinch the core of the substantive issue.

A more appropriate term, it seems to me, and one that is in line with the concerns of Buccellati G 2017 C A R), is the term “referential.” The formal shapes are seen to refer, outside of the inner-referential system of formal analysis, to a specific moment in history, which is indeed universally recognized (at least in a Eurocentric milieu). It is true that it is a “convention” that allows us to establish the correlation, but the aspect that most closely identifies this level of analysis is that it proposes a reference to a known world outside the formal one of the shapes. A comparison with the linguistic sphere brings to mind the lexical dimension: not only is the overall composition identifiable as the Last Supper; the positions and demeanor of the individuals represented can be used to identify one as Jesus, the other as John, another as Judas, and so on.

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Iconological or semiotic analysis

Referentiality applies to iconology as well as to iconography, but the difference lies in the dimensional nature of such referentiality. With iconology we have a multi-dimensionality that implies the systemic converging of a number of factors. They lead to a deeper interpretive level, through an analysis that aims to identify the unifying source of what appears on the surface.

Panofsky describes this level alternatively as that relating to the intrinsic meaning or content; to the underlying principles; to the “symbolical” values; to the emotional attitude (see the excerpts). Also relevant in this respect is the title of the second major collection of studies, Panofsky 1955 Meaning. This “meaning” is the deeper or “intrinsic meaning” which he considers as the main distinctive trait of iconology.

This emphasis on “meaning” may best be related to the notion of the “signified” as articulated in semiotics. And it is the progressive relationship from one “stratum” to the other that is relevant for the main argument developed in Buccellati G 2017 C A R.

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