Panofsky Iconography & Iconography edited

Erwin  Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts: Collected Essays

Ch. 1 Iconology & Iconography (1955) exert p26


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.

When an acquaintance greets me on the street by lifting his hat, what I see from a formal point of view is nothing but the change of certain details within a configuration forming part of the general pattern of color, lines and volumes which constitutes my world of vision. When I identify, as I automatically do, this configuration as an object (gentleman), and the change of detail as an event (hat-lifting), I have already overstepped the limits of purely formal perception and entered a first sphere of subject matter or meaning. The meaning thus perceived is of an elementary and easily understandable nature, and we shall call it the factual meaning; it is apprehended by simply identifying certain visible forms with certain objects known to me from practical experience, and by identifying the change in their relations with certain actions or events.

Now the objects and events thus identified will naturally produce a certain reaction within myself.  From the way my acquaintance performs his action I may be able to sense whether he is in a good or bad humor, and whether his feelings towards me are indifferent, friendly or hostile. These psychological nuances will invest the gestures of my acquaintance with a further meaning which we shall call expressional. It differs from the factual one in that it is apprehended, not by simple identification, but by “empathy.” To understand it, I need a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is  part of my practical experience, that is, of my everyday familiarity with objects and events. Therefore both the factual and tie expressional meaning may be classified together: they constitute the class of primary or natural meanings.

However, my realization that the lifting of the hat stands for a greeting belongs in an altogether different realm of interpretation. This form of salute is peculiar to the Western world and is a residue of mediaeval chivalry: armed men used to remove their helmets to make clear their peaceful intentions and their confidence in the peaceful intentions of others. Neither an Australian bushman nor an ancient Greek could be expected to realize that the lifting of a hat is not only a practical event with certain expressional connotations, but also a sign of politeness. To understand this significance of the gentleman’s action I must not only be familiar with the practical world of objects and events, but also with the more-than practical world of customs and cultural traditions peculiar to a certain civilization. Conversely, my acquaintance could not feel impelled to greet me by lifting his hat were he not conscious of the significance of this act. As for the expressional connotations which accompany his action, he may or may not be conscious of them.

Therefore, when I interpret the lifting of a hat as a polite greeting, I recognize in it a meaning which may be called secondary or conventional; it differs from the primary or natural one in that it is intelligible instead of being sensible, and in that it has been consciously imparted to the practical action by which it is conveyed.

And finally: besides constituting a natural event in space and time, besides naturally indicating moods or feelings, besides conveying a conventional greeting, the action of my acquaintance can reveal to an experienced observer all that goes to make up his “personality.” This personality is conditioned by his being a man of the twentieth century, by his national, social and educational background, by the previous history of his …and by his present surroundings; but it is also distinguished by an individual manner of viewing things and reacting to the world which, if rationalized, would have …

Iconography and Iconology: to be called a philosophy. In the isolated action of a polite greeting all these factors do not manifest themselves comprehensively, but nevertheless symptomatically. We could not construct a mental portrait of the man on the basis of this single action, but only by co-coordinating a large number of similar observations and by interpreting them in connection with our general information as to his period, nationality, class, intellectual traditions and so forth. Yet all the qualities which, this mental portrait would show explicitly are implicitly inherent in every single action; so that, conversely, every single action can be interpreted in the light of those qualities.

The meaning thus discovered may be called the 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 be 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, normally, as much above the sphere of conscious volition as the expressional meaning is beneath this sphere.

Transferring the results of this analysis from everyday life to a work of art, we can distinguish in its subject matter or meaning to be same three strata:

  1. Primary of 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.
  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.[1] 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[2]s” in Wolfflin’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.

  1. 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-Bonaventure 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 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.” [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  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,..

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.]

Iconology, then, is a method of interpretation which arises from synthesis rather than analysis. And as the correct identification of motifs is the prerequisite of their correct iconographical analysis, so is the correct analysis of images, stories and allegories the prerequisite of their correct iconological interpretation unless we deal with works of art in which the whole sphere of secondary or conventional subject matter is eliminated and a direct transition from motifs to content is effected, as is the case with European landscape painting, still life and genre, not to mention “non-objective” art.

Now, how do we achieve “correctness” in operating on these three levels, pre-iconographical description, iconographical analysis, and iconological interpretation? In the case of a pre-iconographical description, which keeps within the limits of the world of motifs, the matter seems simple enough. The objects and events whose representation by lines, colors and volumes constitutes the world of motifs can be identified, as we have seen, on the basis of our practical experience. Everybody can recognize the shape and behavior of human beings, animals and plants, and everybody can tell an angry face from a jovial one.

It is, of course, possible that in a given case the range of our personal experience is not wide enough, for instance when we find ourselves confronted with the representation of an obsolete or unfamiliar tool, or with the representation of a plant or animal unknown to us. In such cases we have to widen the range of our practical experience by consulting a book or an expert; but we do not leave the sphere of practical experience as such, which informs us, needless to say, as to what land of expert to consult Yet even in this sphere we encounter a peculiar problem. Setting aside the fact that the objects, events and expressions depicted in a work of art may be unrecognizable owing to the incompetence or malice aforethought of the artist, it is, on principle, impossible to arrive at a correct pre-iconographical description, or identification of primary subject matter, by indiscriminately applying our practical experience to the work of art. Our practical experience is indispensable, as well as sufficient, as material for a pre-iconographical description, but it does not guarantee its correctness.

A pre-iconographical description of Roger van der Weyden’s Three Magi in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum at Berlin (Fig. 1) would, of course, have to avoid such terms as “Magi/* “Infant Jesus,” etc. But it would have to mention that the apparition of a small child is seen in the sky. How do we know that this child is meant to be an apparition? That it is surrounded with a halo of golden rays would not be sufficient proof of this assumption, for similar halos can often be observed in representations of the Nativity where the Infant Jesus is real. That the child in Roger’s picture is meant to be an apparition can only be deduced from the additional fact that he hovers in mid-air. But how do we know that he hovers in mid-air? His pose would be no different were he seated on a pillow on the ground; in fact, it is highly probable that Roger used for his painting a drawing from life of a child seated on a pillow. The only valid reason for our assumption that the child in the Berlin picture is meant to be an apparition is the fact that he is depicted in space with no visible means of support But we can adduce hundreds of representations in which human beings, animals and inanimate objects seem to hang loose in space in violation of the law of gravity, without thereby pretending to be apparitions.

For instance, in a miniature in the Gospels of Otto III in the Staatsbib Mothefc of Munich, a whole city is represented in the center of an empty space while the figures taking part in the action stand on solid ground (Fig. 2). An inexperienced observer may well assume that the town is meant to be suspended in mid-air by some sort of magic. Yet in this case the lack of support does not imply a miraculous invalidation of the laws of nature. The city is the real city of Nain where the resurrection of the youth took place. In a miniature of around 1000 “empty space’* does not count as a real three-dimensional medium, as it does in a more realistic period, but serves as an abstract, unreal background. The curious semicircular shape of what should be the base line of the towers bears witness to the fact that, in the more realistic prototype of our miniature, the town had been situated on a hilly terrain, but was taken over into a representation in which space had ceased to be thought of in terms of perspective realism.

Thus, while the unsupported figure in the van der Weyden picture counts as an apparition, the floating city in the Ottonian miniature has no miraculous connotation. These contrasting interpretations are suggested to us by the “realistic” qualities of the painting and the “unrealistic” qualities of the miniature* But that we grasp these qualities in the fraction of a second and almost automatically must not induce us to believe that we could ever give a correct preiconographical description of a work of art without having divined, as it were, its historical ‘locus/* While we believe that we are identifying the motifs on the basis of our practical experience pure and simple, we really are reading “what we see” according to the manner in which objects and events are expressed by forms under varying historical conditions. In doing this, we subject our practical experience to a corrective principle which may be called the history of style.[3]

Iconographical analysis, dealing with images, stories and allegories instead of with motifs, presupposes, of course, much more than that familiarity with objects and events which we acquire by practical experience. It presupposes a familiarity with specific themes or concepts as transmitted through literary sources, whether acquired by purposeful reading or by oral tradition.

Our Australian bushman[4] would be unable to recognize the subject of a Last Supper; to him, it would only convey the idea of an excited dinner party. To understand the iconographical meaning of the picture he would have to familiarize himself with the content of the Gospels. When it comes to representations of themes other than Biblical stories or scenes from history and mythology which happen to be known to the average “educated person,” all of us are Australian bushmen. In such cases we, too, must try to familiarize ourselves with what the authors of those representations had read or otherwise knew. But again, while an acquaintance with specific themes and concepts transmitted through literary sources is indispensable and sufficient material for an iconographical analysis, it does not guarantee its correctness. It is just as impossible for us to give a correct iconographical analysis by indiscriminately applying our literary knowledge to the motifs, as it is for us to give a correct pre-iconographical description by indiscriminately applying our practical experience to the forms. (For entire article see

fig. 1 Rogier van der weden, detail, vision of 3 magi, 15th century

fig. 2 Gospel of Otto III, 1000, substituted Raising of Lazarus – still works with floating city!



[1] Images conveying the idea, not of concrete and individual persons or objects ( such as St. Bartholomew, Venus, Mrs. Jones, or Windsor Castle), but of abstract and general notions such as Faith, Luxury, Wisdom, etc., are called either personifications or symbols (not in the Cassirerian, but in the ordinary sense, e.g., the Cross, or the Tower of Chastity). Thus allegories, as opposed to stories, may be defined as combinations of personifications and/or symbols. There are, of course, many intermediary possibilities. Person A may be portrayed in the guise of the person B. ( Bronzino s Andrea Doria as Neptune: Biker’s Lucas Paumgartner as St. George), or in the customary array of a personification (Joshua Reynolds’ Mrs. Stanhope as “Contemplation*); portrayals of concrete and individual persons, both human or mythological, may be combined with personifications, as is the case in countless representations of a eulogistic character. A story may convey, in addition, an allegorical idea, as is the case with the illustrations of the Ovide Moralist or may be conceived as the “prefiguration” of another story, as in the “Biblia Pauperism or in the Speculum Humanae Sdvationis. Such superimposed meanings either do not enter into the content of the work at all, as is the case with the Ofide MoralisS illustrations, which are visually indistinguishable from non-allegorical miniatures illustrating the same Ovidian subjects; or they cause an ambiguity of content, which can, however, be overcome or even turned into an added value if the conflicting ingredients are molten in the heat of a fervent artistic temperament as in Rubens’ “Galerie de Medicis.”


[3] To correct the interpretation of an individual work of art by a “history of style,” which in turn can only be built up by interpreting individual works, may look like a vicious circle. It is, indeed, a circle, though not a vicious, but a methodical one ( cf. E. Wind, Das Experiment und die Metaphysik, cited above, p. 6; idem, “Some Points of Contact between History and Science/* cited ibidem). “Whether we deal with historical or natural phenomena, the individual observation assumes the character of a “fact” only when it can be related to other, analogous observations in such a way that the whole series “makes sense/’ This “sense” is, therefore, fully capable of being applied, as a control, to the interpretation of a new individual observation within the same range of phenomena. If, however, this new individual observation definitely refuses to be interpreted according to the “sense” of the series, and if an error proves to be impossible, the “sense” of the series will have to be reformulated to include the new individual observation. This drculus meihodicw applies, of course, not only to the relationship between the interpretation of motifs and the history of style, but also to the relationship between the interpretation of images, stories and allegories and the history of types, and to the relationship between the interpretation of intrinsic meanings and the history of cultural symptoms in general.

[4] For more on aboriginal iconography see Walbiri iconography: Graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a Central Australian society, ND Munn – 1973 – Ithaca [NY]: Cornell University Press

Panofsky.Iconography & Iconology