Critique of Archaeological Reason
Excerpts and summaries

Erwin Panofsky

Giorgio Buccellati - February 2016

Excerpts from 1955 Meaning in the Visual Arts

A "rational archaeological analysis"
A definition of iconology
The three "strata"

A "rational archaeological analysis"

in the context of humanism, archaeoogy reaches for meaning by appropriating [hermeneutically] the experience of the ancients The scientist, dealing as he does with natural phenomena, can at once proceed to analyze them. The humanist, dealing as he does with human actions and creations, has to engage in a mental process of a synthetic and subjective character: he has mentally to re-enact the actions and to re-create the creations. It is in fact by this process that the real objects of the humanities come into being. For it is obvious that historians of philosophy or sculpture are concerned with books and statues not in so far as these books and sculptures exist materially, but in so far as they have a meaning. And it is equally obvious that this meaning can only be apprehended by re-producing, and thereby, quite literally, "realizing," the thoughts that are expressed in the books and the artistic conceptions that manifest themselves in the statues. (p. 14)
[this statement comes close to my second definition of archaeology]      Thus the art historian subjects his "material" to a rational archaeological analysis at times as meticulously exact, comprehensive and involved as any physical or astronomical research. But he constitutes his "material" by means of an intuitive aesthetic re-creation, including the perception and appraisal of "quality," just as any "ordinary" person does when he or she looks at a picture or listens to a symphony.
     How, then, is it possible to build up art history as a respectable scholarly discipline, if its very objects come into being by an irrational and subjective process? (p. 14 f.)
in a footnote, P. reinforces what he says in the main text      Thus, in experiencing a work of art aesthetically we perform two entirely different acts which, however, psychologically merge with each other into one Erlebnis; we build up our aesthetic object both by re-creating the work of art according to the "intention" of its maker, and by freely creating a set of aesthetic values comparable to those with which we endow a tree or a sunset. (p. 15, note 11)
a specific reference to archaeology,
seen as analysis [grammar] in a synergetic relationship to interpretation [hermeneutics]
     The real answer lies in the fact that intuitive aesthetic recreation and archaeological research are interconnected so as to form, again, what we have called an "organic situation." It is not true that the art historian first constitutes his object by means of re-creative synthesis and then begins his archaeological investigation as though first buying a ticket and then boarding a train. In reality the two processes do not succeed each other, they interpenetrate; not only does the re-creative synthesis serve as a basis for the archaeological investigation, the archaeological investigation in turn serves as a basis for the re-creative process; both mutually qualify and rectify one another. (p. 16)
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Definition of "iconology"

iconography as description and classification [grammar]      The suffix "graphy" derives from the Greek verb graphein, "to write"; it implies a purely descriptive, often even statistical, method of procedure. Iconography is, therefore, a description and classification of images much as ethnography is a description and classification of human races: it is a limited and, as it were, ancillary study which informs us as to when and where specific themes were visualized by which specific motifs. It tells us when and where the crucified Christ was draped with a loincloth or clad in a long garment; when and where He was fastened to the Cross with four nails or with three; how the Virtues and Vices were represented in different centuries and environments. In doing all this, iconography is an invaluable help for the establishment of dates, provenance and, occasionally, authenticity; and it furnishes the necessary basis for all further interpretation. It does not, however, attempt to work out this interpretation for itself. It collects and classifies the evidence but does not consider itself obliged or entitled to investigate the genesis and significance of this evidence: the interplay between the various "types"; the influence of theological, philosophical or political ideas; the purposes and inclinations of individual artists and patrons; the correlation between intelligible concepts and the visible form which they assume in each specific case. In short, iconography considers only a part of all those elements which enter into the intrinsic content of a work of art and must be made explicit if the perception of this content is to become articulate and communicable. [p. 31 f.]
iconology as interpretation [semiotics and hermeneutics]      It is because of these severe restrictions which common usage, especially in this country, places upon the term "iconography" that I propose to revive the good old word "iconology" wherever iconography is taken out of its isolation and integrated with whichever other method, historical, psychological or critical, we may attempt to use in solving the riddle of the sphinx. For as the suffix "graphy" denotes something descriptive, so does the suffix "logy" derived from logos, which means "thought" or "reason" denote something interpretative. "Ethnology," for instance, is defined as a "science of human races" by the same Oxford Dictionary that defines "ethnography" as a "description of human races," and Webster explicitly warns against a confusion of the two terms inasmuch as "ethnography is properly restricted to the purely descriptive treatment of peoples and races while ethnology denotes their comparative study." So I conceive of iconology as an iconography turned interpretative and thus becoming an integral part of the study of art instead of being confined to the role of a preliminary statistical survey. There is, however, admittedly some danger that iconology will behave, not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astrography. [p. 32]
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The three "strata." These are the famous three levels of analysis that Panofsky proposes for the interpretation of an art work. They are cited here in extenso (italics in the original). The definitions as formal, referential and semiotic reflect my interpetation of the three "strata."


formal level]
     Transferring the results of this analysis from everyday life to a work of art, we can distinguish in its subject matter or meaning tibe same three strata:
     1. Primary or natural subject matter, subdivided into factual and expressional. It is apprehended by identifying pure forms, that is: certain configurations of line and color, or certain peculiarly shaped lumps of bronze or stone, as representations of natural objects such as human beings, animals, plants, houses, tools and so forth; by identifying their mutual relations as events; and by perceiving such expressional qualities as the mournful character of a pose or gesture, or the homelike and peaceful atmosphere of an interior. The world of pure forms thus recognized as carriers of primary or natural meanings may be called the world of artistic motifs. An enumeration of these motifs would be a pre-iconographical description of the work of art. [p. 28]

[referential level]
     2. Secondary or conventional subject matter. It is apprehended by realizing that a male figure with a knife represents St. Bartholomew, that a female figure with a peach in her hand is a personification of veracity, that a group of figures seated at a dinner table in a certain arrangement and in certain poses represents the Last Supper, or that two figures fighting each other in a certain manner represent the Combat of Vice and Virtue. In doing this we connect artistic motifs and combinations of artistic motifs (compositions) with themes or concepts. Motifs thus recognized as carriers of a secondary or conventional meaning may be called images, and combinations of images are what the ancient theorists of art called invenzioni; we are wont to call them stories and allegories. The identification of such images, stories and allegories is the domain of what is normally referred to as "iconography." In fact, when we loosely speak of "subject matter as opposed to form," we chiefly mean the sphere of secondary or conventional subject matter, viz., the world of specific themes or concepts manifested in images, stories and allegories, as opposed to the sphere of primary or natural subject matter manifested in artistic motifs. "Formal analysis" in Wölfflin's sense is largely an analysis of motifs and combinations of motifs (compositions) ; for a formal analysis in the strict sense of the word would even have to avoid such expressions as "man," "horse," or "column," let alone such evaluations as "the ugly triangle between the legs of Michelangelo's David" or "the admirable clarification of the joints in a human body." It is obvious that a correct iconographical analysis presupposes a correct identification of the motifs. If the knife that enables us to identify a St Bartholomew is not a knife but a corkscrew, the figure is not a St. Bartholomew. Furthermore, it is important to note that the statement "this figure is an image of St. Bartholomew" implies the conscious intention of the artist to represent St. Bartholomew, while the expressional qualities of the figure may well be unintentional. [pp. 28-30]
  underlying   prnciples or   symbolical   values

semiotic level]
     3. Intrinsic meaning or content. It is apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion-qualified by one personality and condensed into one work. Needless to say, these principles are manifested by, and therefore throw light on, both "compositional methods" and "iconographical significance." In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for instance (the earliest examples can be dated around 1300), the traditional type of the Nativity with the Virgin Mary reclining in bed or on a couch was frequently replaced by a new one which shows the Virgin kneeling before the Child in adoration. From a compositional point of view this change means, roughly speaking, the substitution of a triangular scheme for a rectangular one; from an iconographical point of view, it means the introduction of a new theme to be formulated in writing by such authors as Pseudo-Boaaventure and St, Bridget But at the same time it reveals a new emotional attitude peculiar to the later phases of the Middle Ages. A really exhaustive interpretation of the intrinsic meaning or content might even show that the technical procedures characteristic of a certain country, period, or artist, for instance Michelangelo's preference for sculpture in stone instead of in bronze, or the peculiar use of hatchings in his drawings, are symptomatic of the same basic attitude that is discernible in all the other specific qualities of his style. In thus conceiving of pure forms, motifs, images, stories and allegories as manifestations of underlying principles, we interpret all these elements as what Ernst Cassirer has called "symbolical" values. As long as we limit ourselves to stating that Leonardo da Vinci's famous fresco shows a group of thirteen men around a dinner table, and that this group of men represents the Last Supper, we deal with the work of art as such, and we interpret its compositional and iconographical features as its own properties or qualifications. But when we try to understand it as a document of Leonardo's personality, or of the civilization of the Italian High Renaissance, or of a peculiar religious attitude, we deal with the work of art as a symptom of something else which expresses itself in a countless variety of other symptoms, and we interpret its compositional and iconographical features as more particularized evidence of this "something else." The discovery and interpretation of these "symbolical" values (which are often unknown to the artist himself and may even emphatically differ from what he consciously intended to express) is the object of what we may call "iconology" as opposed to "iconography." [pp. 30-31]
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