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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics

Author(s): Christine Hasenmueller

Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 36, No. 3, Critical Interpretation
(Spring, 1978), pp. 289-301
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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Panofsky, Iconography,and Semiotics

THERE HAS BEEN little active experimenta- ing, elucidate interpretive processes that
tion with extending the methods and con- constitute various levels of understanding,
cepts of structuralism and semiology to the and present a taxonomy to specify relation-
subject matter of art history. Reluctance has ships between meaning in art and a "history
'stemmed from several factors: implicit ac- of meaning." For a generation it has stood
ceptance of history as a mode of explana- as the primary statement of the "iconologi-
tion, the tendency among art historians to cal method" in art history, and as the stand-
distinguish investigations of form from in- ard definition of the concepts iconography
terpretations of content or meaning, and and iconology. Within art history, Panof-
the fact that art history- almost by defini- sky's work has been appreciated chiefly at
tion - accords a special place in civilization face value as an authoritative definition of
to art, especially to Western art of the classi- concepts and methods. There has been little
cal tradition. The classical bias built into systematic attempt to assess the implications
the terminology and methods of the disci- of his contributions to implicit notions of
pline is diametrically opposed to the struc- "meaning," and to "history" as a mode of
turalist assumption of the essential equiva- ordering information about art.
lence of "primitive" and "civilized" think- Most attempts to analyze Panofsky's work
ing. Finally, art history in the United States from the perspective of semiotics proceed
has been characterized by a strong value on from a wish to establish a foundation in
concrete data and conclusions and a corre- extant art historical studies of meaning for
sponding suspicion of attempts to deduce a semiotic of art.5 They inevitably empha-
intangibles.1 size the correspondences between Panofsky's
Nevertheless, in recent years, there have thinking and the conceptual vocabulary of
been some interesting attempts to discern semiology, and minimize - or ignore - the
parallels between structuralism and art his- fact that his concepts are highly integrated
tory.2 The work of Erwin Panofsky, espe- with the art historical theory of which they
cially, has been considered "semiotic" in are a part.
character. Argan recently found it so clearly Panofsky's concepts iconography and ico-
so that he labelled Panofsky the "Saussure"
nology certainly subsume brilliant defini-
of art history.3 Two works have attracted tions that clarify practice, and bear striking
most of the inquiry into Panofsky's work as resemblances to some ideas typical of semi-
an incipient "semiotic": Gothic Architecture ology. But to assess whether Panofsky's sys-
and Scholasticism and "Iconography and tem is, as Argan suggested, a "semiotic of
Iconology: An Introduction to the Study art" we must begin with an examination of
of Renaissance Art." 4 The latter essay is the logic of the essay itself and of its place
a detailed attempt to discern strata of mean- in a largely implicit and still obscure body
of art historical theory. Comparison of the
CIRISTINE HASENMUELLER is associate professor in the resulting redefinitions with recent explica-
department of fine arts at Vanderbilt University. tions of the notions of "sign" and "symbol"

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will reveal fundamental distinctions be- meaning are nowhere near so obvious.
tween Panofsky's method and semiology. Panofsky set it apart from the first two
The comparison has broad implications for levels of meaning, by stating that intrinsic
both fields. The very proposal of a "semi- meaning was "essential" where natural and
otic of art" has a "cathartic" effect- to use conventional meaning were "phenomenal."
Barthes's term - for historians, forcing re- A social act like tipping a hat conveyed,
assessment of the role of history in explain- in Panofsky's view, fragments of informa-
ing art.6 Conversely, the test of adapting tion about the character and philosophical
semiological concepts and methods to paint- orientation of the actor. Though these atti-
ing underlines some limitations on semiol- tudes were not reconstructable on this evi-
ogy deriving from long association of its dence, they were nevertheless indicated
conceptual language with linguistic and lit- "symptomatically."
erary material. It poses, from another angle, Three analogous levels of meaning in
Sperber's question as to whether the notion art become the objects of pre-iconographic,
of sign is adequate to all forms of meaning.7 iconographic, and iconological interpreta-
Panofsky distinguished three levels of tion. Pre-iconograpiLic description was the
meaning in Renaissance art.8 He presented recognition of "pure forms." In the hat ex-
them through an analogy with three phrases ample, primary meaning meant direct asso-
of the interpretation of an instance of com- ciation of a new visual experience with
municative behavior - a man tipping his memory; with art there was an additional
hat. Primary or natural meaning, the first step in recognition of the motif in art as a
phase, he subdivided into recognition of representation of the world of experience.10
factual meaning, and empathetic appre- In effect, then, pre-iconographic description
hension of expressional meaning. Identifi- consisted in acceptance of form in art as a
cation of visual data with objects known carrier of primary or natural meaning.
from experience was factual, while sensitiv- Iconography was the intellectual inter-
ity to psychological nuances of these facts pretation of secondary or conventional sub-
consisted in understanding of expressional ject matter analogous to the second level of
meaning. interpretation of social acts. Recognition
Recognition of the act as a greeting pre- that form may refer to "themes and con-
supposed a shared cultural context, and a cepts" as well as visual experiences presup-
second phase of interpretation that Panof- posed both a correct pre-iconographic de-
sky labelled secondary or conventional. scription and knowledge of the literary
While he considered both these strata of sources. Panofsky's definition of image as
meaning to be phenomenal, he recognized a conventional association of motif and
a difference between the two at the level literary content is easily seen as parallel to
of interpretive processes. Where primary the concept "sign." An image was defined
meaning was sensible, Panofsky defined sec- by its explicit duality: it constituted the
ondary meaning as intelligible.9 Clearly the point of intersection between reference in
intelligent interpretation of conventional art to nature and reference to literature. It
meaning based on shared knowledge of the is very difficult to decide what kind of lin-
systematic association of the gesture with its guistic signa are most closely paralleled by
message implies a notion of meaning that is this relationship. Not only are there many
in a general way "semiotic." Although Pa- alternative taxonomies for the linguistic
nofsky did not use the concept "sign," he phenomena, but even within one taxon-
set up, at this point in his argument, a omy, the fit of categories to the "signifier/
thoroughly parallel association of a "signify- signified" relationship Panofsky described is
ing" gesture and a "signified" message of ambiguous. Edmund Leach, for instance,
greeting. labels as signs those signa in which signifier/
The third level, which Panofsky called signified are related as the part to the
intrinsic meaning, is somewhat different, whole." Certainly to the extent that natu-
and its relationship to semiotic notions of ralistic representations for Panofsky "mean"

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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics 291

by becoming an extension - part - of the to the first two levels of his analysis, and the
naturalistic phenomena represented, they inherently interpretive and subjective char-
approximate this designation. However, as- acter of analysis that went beyond this. He
sociation of signifier/signified by planned alluded to the "danger" that iconology
resemblance, as in a map or portrait, Leach would behave like astrology, i.e., become
assigned to icons, which in turn are a va- hopelessly unscientific, and apologetically
riety of symbol - and as such, contrasted to remarked that the faculty needed for icono-
signs. Panofsky's concepts do not admit logical insight might best be described by
of a consistent and unambiguous "transla- "the rather discredited term 'synthetic in-
tion" into Leach's or other specific semiotic tuition.' "13 He well knew the difficulties
terminology. of verifying the conclusions of investigation
Significantly, Panofsky included only cer- that transcended empirical data, and of de-
tain aspects of the capacity of elements in fending them in an age when humanistic
art to refer to external ideas in his defini- studies felt increasingly compelled to model
tion of image. It follows that only certain themselves on the sciences.
operations of the interpretation of these The terminology Panofsky used in dis-
references consist in iconography. Interpre- tinguishing iconology from iconography in-
tation of images is concerned with conscious directly supports the analogy between ico-
shaping of references to "themes and con- nography and general characteristics of
cepts"- further defined as "stories and alle- signs. In stating that iconology was inter-
gories." Iconography is, then, the analysis pretation that went beyond the articulate
of systematic associations of motif and liter- he implied that the subject of iconography
ary content. was articulate.14 Panofsky was quite explicit
Panofsky defined the third phase, iconol- about the unconscious character of intrinsic
ogy, as: "ascertaining those underlying prin- meaning: by contrast, the object of iconog-
ciples which reveal the basic attitude of a raphy was consciously used conventional
nation, a period, a class, a religious or philo- codes. Finally, Panofsky identified the ob-
sophical persuasion- unconsciously quali- ject of iconology with what Cassirer called
fied by one personality and condensed in "symbolical values." 15 He contrasted, then,
one work." 12 It involved a level of mean- meaning which was articulate, conscious,
ing analogous to the "essential" meaning of and decodable through literary keys to
social acts. These "underlying principles" meaning that was essential, unconscious, and
cannot be reconstructed on the basis of accessible only to subjective understanding.
their partial manifestation in a single work, The systematic, conventional meaning ar-
but nevertheless are presumably analyzable. ticulated in images behaves much like the
The principles that are the ultimate ob- messages conveyed through the conscious
ject of iconology played a role in every step use of language as a code. And the notion
of the creative process - even such factors as image has many characteristics of typical
choice of media. They presumably affected definitions of the concept "sign." The prob-
representation of nature and influenced ico- lem lies, however, not in assimilating ico-
nography. The data are thus not discrete. nography to the comparatively concrete
Panofsky drew fundamental distinctions, levels of semiological investigation, but in
however, between the methods of iconology assessing the relationship between iconology
and the methods appropriate to more con- and extensions of the linguistic model to a
crete levels of meaning. He viewed iconog- more abstract interpretation of "deep"
raphy and pre-iconographic interpretation meaning. The development of semiological
as descriptive processes, and iconology, by methods in the literatures has led to wide
contrast, as a matter of synthesis. There is agreement that there is a high degree of con-
a certain defensiveness detectable at this tinuity of the data and methods applicable
point in his argument: Panofsky was deeply between relatively concrete levels of sign
aware of the contrast between the "descrip- function and what might be called, to bor-
tive and classificatory" character he ascribed row Panofsky's term, "essential" meaning.

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Panofsky himself, as we have seen, drew sev- "Style" was seen, by implication, as a
eral kinds of distinctions between these changing set of representational conven-
levels of analysis. The question must be, tions that mediate the relationship between
then, whether his distinctions are substan- motif and nature. To be sure, Panofsky
tive. First, can the notion of "sign" usefully broadly allowed at a later point in his argu-
be extended from iconography to Panofsky's ment, that iconological meaning may infuse
levels 1 and 3; second, did Panofsky intend all aspects of a work of art, including style.
such a continuity? The first question con- But style remained primarily a factor that
cerns the limits of a "semiotic of art." The conditions interpretation rather than a locus
second concerns the relationship between of meaning.
Panofsky's conceptual vocabulary and that "Iconographic meaning" was systematic
of semiotics. Panofsky indeed tried to estab- and arbitrary. Its interpretation involved
lish a continuity of his own among his three the "decoding" of images - units much like
levels. The epistemological problems he signs; iconography is, in effect, the analysis
encountered are significant not only for the of a particular "sign-function" within the
interpretation of his work, but for any at- spectrum of artistic meaning. It is con-
tempt to forge a "semiotic of art." Exami- cerned with the meaning of conventional
nation of the object and methods of each vocabularies of images defined by their refer-
phase of the investigation will provide a ence to literary sources. The effect is to sup-
basis for deciding whether it consists in a port a concept of the "meaning" of art that
sequence of discrete procedures or parts of may be satisfactorily stated by establishing
a unified - and essentially semiological- the source of the artistic image in literature.
inquiry. As was the case with pre-iconographic mean-
The notion of pre-iconographic meaning ing, form in art was seen to signify through
presupposed a substratum of naturalism in reference to a range of phenomena outside
painting. Panofsky restricted his considera- the work of art. Just as form was "sensible"
tion to Renaissance art, where represen- as the indirect reflection of visual data of the
tation of nature is the normal modality lived world, it is "intelligible" as a reformu-
of artistic communication. Correct pre- lation of literary content.
iconographical description was the founda- The "meaning" and "referents" of art are
tion of understanding: the work of art be- closely related, but not necessarily identical.
comes "sensible" as an indirect part of the If they are equated, as often happens in
nature that it represents.
practice - and there is little in Panofsky's
Where the artist and the interpreter are definitions to discourage this inference -
not part of the same cultural/historical then art becomes, willy-nilly, a fundamen-
group, representational conventions are not tally lexical phenomenon. Motifs and
part of a shared tacit knowledge: it is neces- images might seem "sign-like" in terms of
sary for the interpreter to understand and their relationships to external units of
bracket characteristics of representation meaning. But the "sign system" thus defined
typical of the time and place a work of art is secondary and incomplete. It is a "lexi-
was made in order for this "identity" be- con" without its own "syntax." Either its
tween the representation and nature to oc- "systematic" character is a mere reflection
cur.16 Panofsky stated that pre-iconographic of the patterns formed by its referents, or its
description must be guided by the "correc- capacity to generate independent state-
tive principle" of the history of style. This ments is outside the interpretive power of
cautionary procedure indicates two signifi- Panofsky's analysis.
cant assumptions that underlie the argu- To return to the basic analogy: iconog-
ment. At this level, motifs "mean" nature. raphy was compared to our recognition of
And, meaning is "decoded" by recognizing the tipping of a man's hat as a greeting. In
the systematic relationship between motifs the same way, Panofsky suggested, we recog-
and nature so that the latter may be in- nize that a picture of thirteen men seated
cluded in our interpretation of the former. around a table represents the Last Supper.17

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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics 293
The two interpretive acts are certainly par- meaning is that of a sign: the message bear-
allel in that a greater degree of culturally ing entity has a fixed, conventional, denota-
shared knowledge is necessary to conclude tive association with its message.20 The rela-
that the tipped hat conveys greeting, and tionship between a representation of the
that the picture refers to a particular supper Last Supper and its referent is specific-
than to recognize the visual data as result- singular. The relationship of message bear-
ing from, respectively, a man's gesture and a ing entity and message approximates the
representation of thirteen men eating. The "separately defined denotation" that char-
kind of knowledge that allows our recogni- acterizes Leach's definition of a symbol. He
tion of the Last Supper differs, however, follows Mulder and Hervey in defining
from that which allows interpretation of symbols as "signa dependent on a separate
the greeting in three important ways. (occasional) definition for their correct
First, acts and situations are distinguish- interpretation." 21
alle from representations of acts and situa- Both signs and symbols in Leach's termi-
tions by the fact of representation alone. nology, are signa - that is, they are variants
Interpretation of the latter must consider of a general type of "communication dyad"
not only the parallels between representa- composed of a message-bearing entity (com-
tion and represented, but also the differ- pare: "signifier") and a message (compare:
ences of structure and function. Panofsky's "signified") associated by arbitrary human
essay did not emphasize this, but an exten- choice. Both sign and symbol share the gen-
sion of his example makes the point clear. eral characteristics often associated with the
Our interpretation of a representation of term "sign" when that term is used in its
gestures of greeting - such as the gestures more general sense. There is no barrier,
of the men with their hats in Courbet's The then, to considering Leach's signs and sym-
Encounter - is doubtless parallel to our in- bols as proper objects of semiotics broadly
terpretation of the observed acts them- defined as the "science of signs." Leach's
selves.18 That is, our recognition that the
very definition of symbol does not, as
picture shows men making gestures of greet- Sperber's does, pose the question of the
ing is based on our ability to recognize ac- validity of semiotic investigation of the
tual gestures as greetings. The representa-
symbolic.22 However, the distinctions Leach
tion, however, is not a greeting -and does draws between the two kinds of signa do
not function like or "mean" the same
thing suggest some limitations on semiotic analy-
as the greetings depicted.19 Even where sis of symbols. He emphasizes that "sign
art directly represents communicative acts,
relationships are mainly metonymic, while
then, the meaning effects of representation symbol relationships are arbitrary assertions
and represented are related but not of similarity and therefore mainly meta-
ent. The conclusion that the 23 Signs are always part of sets
representation phoric...."
"means" what is represented- or means the and convey information only when com-
same thing as what is represented - is mani- bined with others of this set or context. The
festly unsatisfactory. Ironically it is the meaningfulness of signs, therefore, is a func-
meaning expressed by representing-per- tion of their patterned contiguity to other
haps the dimension of meaning most intrin- signs of the same set. The metonymic (or
sic to art -that is minimized or excluded syntagmatic, to use the parallel term pre-
if Panofsky's analogy is taken too ferred by Levi-Strauss and de Saussure) rela-
Second, where the meaning of the con- tionships of sequences of signs both identify
ventional gesture is generic, the
meaning of the set and actualize the meaning potential
the majority of conventional themes in of individual signs. Symbols, by contrast,
painting depends on their specific associa- relate two elements (message-bearing entity
tion with literary events. A distinction and message) drawn from differing realms,
drawn in Leach's taxonomy of communica- and associated uniquely.24 Meaning is not
tion events is helpful. The
relationship be- dependent on patterned relationships to
tween the gesture of tipping a hat and its other symbols of the same kind. Symbolic re-

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lationships thus are mainly metaphoric (or literature. The result is a unit of a "meta-
in de Saussure's parallel term, paradigmatic). phoric" character. Significantly, it is to be
Leach makes it clear that the same entities deciphered not by looking at its place in the
may be defined as signs or as symbols depend- patterned relationships of similar units in
ing on context or function, and that signs the work of art, but by discovering the par-
and symbols normally occur in combina- ticular basis of the association of the two
tion. Still, the distinction is significant for elements.
the method of interpretation applied. The A third distinction between iconography
uniqueness of symbols means that they can- and interpretation of a gesture of greeting
not be "decoded" simply by identifying the lies in the fact that Panofsky specifically
"code" (set of signs) and bringing to bear identified iconography as the description of
knowledge of the lexicon and syntactic "themes and concepts transmitted through
25 In ico-
structure adequate to "read" the statement literary sources." distinguishing
in question. Symbols typically occur in con- nography from iconology, he obliquely ad-
trastive relationships, but do not require mitted the epistemological advantages of
the context of a patterned metonymy (e.g., this "literariness." There was to be, lamen-
a syntax) in order to convey meaning. Sym- tably, no "text" for iconology.26 Without
bolic meaning depends on metaphoric asser- such concrete evidence, the investigator was
tion of identity between signifier and signi- thrown back upon "synthetic intuition." In
fied: interpretation depends on specification practice, the explication of "meaning" in
of this identity. art is often equated to the correct identifica-
Leach's enterprise bears comparison to tion of the "texts" of images. Iconography
Panofsky's. He adapted some structuralist thus concerned identification of paradig-
assumptions (e.g., that behavior may be matic relationships between art and litera-
understood as fundamentally communica- ture. Patterned relationships among images
tive), and a terminology from semiotics to -metonymy- were not systematically con-
the description and analysis of behavior. sidered.
Panofsky viewed art as fundamentally com- The conviction that iconographical mean-
municative, and attempted to forge a ing is fundamentally literary is paradoxical
method for the analysis of levels of meaning with regard to the question of the "proto-
conveyed by artistic form. He arrived at a semiotic" character of Panofsky's investiga-
set of concepts that approximate, in limited tion. On one hand, support of identity be-
ways, the conceptual vocabulary of semi- tween art and literature may be read as
otics. In both cases, the ultimate object of license to extend semiological investigations
understanding is non-verbal, and the model of literature to art. One might hope to
for understanding it rests at key points on arrive at a "semiotic of art" by the device
methods for analysis of verbal materials. of annexing art to literature. On the other
Both face, in very different ways, the prob- hand, such an extreme extension of the
lem of co-ordinating verbal and non-verbal principle of "ut pictura poesis" would ob-
modes of expressing meaning. viate a specific "semiotic of art." The extent
- the of efforts to explain away some problemati-
Secondary or conventional meaning
object of iconography - has much in com- cal differences between art and literature,
mon with Leach's notion of the symbol. however, tends to suggest that a fundamen-
The linkage between motif and convention- tal identity between art and literature is
ally recognized referent in the image is widely assumed. Painting presents its com-
essentially that of meaning-bearing entity ponents simultaneously rather than sequen-
and message in Leach's symbol. This is tially. This is awkward for models adapted
most clear in the method by which images to description of narrative - semiological
are to be understood. The image associates and otherwise! There is, however, a con-
a motif, which is an element from the "con- siderable literature that tends to minimize
text" of representation of nature, with a this characteristic of painting and rational-
theme or story drawn from the "context" of ize modes of analysis that are based on time

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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics 295

sequence. The fact that motifs in painting ally them with the units Leach called sym-
refer to episodes in literature itself invites bols.28 The reasons for Panofsky's de-
consideration of painting as a partial or emphasis of these relations, however, are
secondary reflection of a temporal art. best sought in the implicit theory of art
Much Western painting of the later Middle history. Relationships among forms in art
Ages and Renaissance clearly attempts to are traditionally conceived as an element of
suggest the episodic sequence of literature style, constrained by the exigencies of repre-
through inclusion of references to more sentation where this is relevant. The tend-
than one phase in an action or by juxta- ency not to assign the relationships among
position of separate representations of se- images a major role in the expression of
quential episodes. Another widespread view meaning may reflect the assumption that
attempts to infuse sequentiality into paint- these relationships are controlled by factors
ing by specifying the order in which formal external to problems of iconographic mean-
arrangement dictates that the eye shall ex- ing, and are, to that degree, "meaning
perience images. It is widely supposed that neutral."
the formal order of painting often, presum- If illusionistic painting is a representa-
ably by the artist's design, directs the move- tion of the appearance of nature in accord-
ment of the eye to create a sequence of im- ance with certain stylistic conventions, then
pressions. Ideas like these have eased the most of the configuration of motifs is "dic-
approach from semiology of narrative to tated" by the order of nature, the optical
semiology of the literary aspects of art. The conditions of its apprehension, and the
result has been concentration on these as- technical conventions of its representation.
pects of art and correspondent slowness to Often it is just those formal relationships
define a semiology of purely visual elements. that seem to contradict what might be ex-
Additional factors have reinforced this pected from a "naturalistic" representation
iconographic focus on the literary aspects of that are recognized as significant. Typically
art. The attempt to discover literary sources it is details that seem anomalous that elicit
is document-oriented, and therefore con- explanation in terms of the artist's symbolic
forms to preference for quasi-empirical intent - or his technical limitations.
problems and methods. And, where the Iconography, then, has a generally "semi-
question of the particular meaning of a otic" character, but there are two problems
given work of art is a fundamentally syn- with considering iconography a "semiotic
chronic issue, the meaning of isolated ele- of art." First, the semiotic functions as-
ments is adaptable to diachronic answers. cribed to the units in question are very
Panofsky noted that images in art have limited. Images are parallel to the signa
their own history, often digressing from the Leach called symbols. They are uniquely
history of the literary imagery upon which defined, and patterned relationship with
they are ultimately based.27 This history of like units is of relatively small importance
images or "types" considered in isolation is in interpretation. Models from semiotics
parallel to etymology. It is a limited form which emphasize patterned metonymy may
of diachronic investigation that elaborates a not be applicable. Second, iconography is
lexicon without encountering the problems concerned with only a narrow dimension
of interpreting the function of those ele- of the meaning of art. Much of its appeal
ments in relation to each other. Such a as a method is based on the epistemological
"history" has the advantage of avoiding de- advantages of this limitation to literary
pendence on highly subjective interpreta- content.
tions, but its conclusions are strictly limited As a stratum of the meaning of art, ico-
in scale. Much iconography, in practice, nology is a paradox. Panofsky made it
poses questions that are "etymological" dependent upon and continuous with the
rather than interpretive of meaning. first two levels, yet contrasted the nature of
The apparent simplicity of "metonymic" the meaning at stake and the method
(syntagmatic) structures formed by images needed to discover it with the objects and

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methods of the previous phases of analysis. comparison of explicitly defined terms, it is

It is both correspondent to the other two not easy to specify precisely what is done in
categories and a way of begging the ques- iconology, much less the relationship of this
tion of categories. to semiology.
The distinction between iconography and The parallels between iconology and
iconology is largely methodological. Panof- semiology concern not method and concepts
sky considered iconography, like ethnogra- but assumptions. Panofsky assumed that
phy and other studies characterized by the "symbolical values" infuse cultural products
suffix, to be fundamentally descriptive.29 including art and literature. The suggestion
The method proposed responds to a value that iconology utilize the "corrective prin-
on objectivity, and the concept "icono- ciple" of comparing results to the conclu-
graphic meaning" may even be seen as sec- sions of similar analyses of literature pre-
ondary to the method and the criteria that supposes their ultimate homogeneity.32
define it. Iconology, by contrast, is Panof- The assumption of such an underlying
sky's name for analysis of meaning that unity allies Panofsky with the structuralists
transcends the limits of this kind of inves- and semio!ogists, but even more directly,
tigation. It is iconography stripped of the with Geistesgeschichte, the school of art his-
"restrictions" he found especially evident torical thinking out of which his ideas de-
in America, and taken out of the narrow veloped. This unity of the arts was formerly
isolation imposed by these methodological explained as the result of a determining
criteria.30 force. Panofsky sought to transcend the diffi-
The cautions Panofsky set forth for ico- culties of speculative, essentialist attempts
nology reveal his awareness of the criticism to derive historical order from a single cau-
to which it would be subject. He stated the sality. His insistence on the dependence of
danger that it might become like astrology each phase of interpretation on the last
rather than like scientific pursuits designed mitigates the deductive character of the
by the "ology" suffix denoting analysis analysis, as does his de-emphasis of causal-
rather than mere description. He pro- ity. It is by no means easy to replace the
foundly recognized that not all of that causal "spirits" Popper called on us to re-
which humanists wish to understand is in- ject with something more logically defen-
vestigatable in accordance with the "scien- sible.33 One response has been retreat into
tific" criteria of investigation and verifiabil- small-scale enterprises that are relatively
ity that tend to be readily accepted in our easy to co-ordinate with more or less em-
intellectual climate. Where iconography is pirical criteria of investigation. Panofsky's
restricted to that which is "knowable" given great strength is shown in his refusal to
certain criteria of method, iconology is de- retreat into narrow documentary studies -
fined by the intuitive capacity of the mind to avoid the sins of historicism by the dis-
to pose and attempt to solve problems that appointing expedient of avoiding the prob-
defy these limits. lems that led to its discredited conclusions.
"Synthetic intuition," indeed, is not so The general assumption that there is
much a method as a human capacity: it is meaning beyond iconography parallels
not an investigative process but a dimen- semiotics. It does not follow from this
sion of mind. The object of this thinking alone, however, that Panofsky's approach is
is, correspondingly, not a delimited kind a semiotic - even an unfinished one. Panof-
of data but "principles which underlie the sky's reasons for defining iconology as he
choice and presentation of motifs as well did stem less from hypotheses about the
as the production and interpretation of nature of this level of meaning than from
images, stories, and allegories, and which his deep and ultimately classical humanism.
give meaning even to formal arrangements He profoundly understood the power of a
and technical procedures employed." 31 generally empirical epistemology to influ-
Though it is possible to assess the relation- ence humanistic research. The fact that he
ship between iconography and semiotics by thought the humanistic character of art his-

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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics 297

tory needed to be stated indicates that he felt a method or a conclusion. The intuitive
it had been questioned and perhaps com- notion of mind involved is revealed by the
promised.34 He certainly appreciated the absence of any formulation of its structure
necessity to attach art historical research or functioning assumed to be reflected in the
firmly to concrete documents and observa- nature of intrinsic meaning. The lack of a
tions, and few scholars have contributed so model linking these things clearly differen-
much to this. But he also envisioned the tiates Panofsky's approach from most semio-
tragic result that would follow attempts to logical inquiry.
subordinate a humalnistic concern for mean- The issue of the historicity of Panofsky's
ing to implicit and often naive notions of method provides another avenue to its dis-
the criteria for "scientific" validity. An un- tinction from semiotics. Both iconographv
defined, uncritical popularity of the ideal and iconology are integral parts of a form
of "scientific" truth could - and did - lead of history. Iconography is a "philology" of
to avoidance of problems that were inher- images; the descriptive, factual aspect of the
ently inimical to concrete modes of investi- process of understanding the past. Relative
gation. Such curtailing of the scope of hu- closeness to documents and concrete obser-
manistic inquiry in order to accommodate vations meant that iconography was more
it to these unspoken values could not make easily defended in an empirical intellectual
art history a science, but it could well sap climate.
its vitality as a humanistic discipline. Iconology sought to state the underlying
Panofsky shared with semiotics both a principles that shape the expression of an
concern for "deep" meaning in cultural age. As such it is a variant of the "history
products, and a conviction that it is acces- of ideas." Certain ambiguities, however,
sible to analysis. Are we to conclude from support questioning as to whether it is
this that Panofsky's approach is a nascent necessarily a historical concept. This has
semiotic which possesses the essentials vast implications for the congruence of
though it perhaps lacks some refinements? Panofsky's concepts with semiology. In
Further consideration of three factors - the Panofsky's table, three kinds of historical
nature of the ultimate subject of the analy- knowledge are given as conditions of cor-
sis, the role of historicity in the explanatory rect analysis at each level -not as goals.
structure offered, and the consistency of the This may engender questions as to whether
notion of sign will support the conclusion Panofsky's approach is "history" at all-
that the "semiotic" character of Panofsky's that is, whether he might not be closer to
approach is ephemeral. an essentially synchronic, semiotic approach
Panofsky summarized the method, object, to art than hitherto suspected. If "history"
and necessary capacities or conditions of in Panofsky's chart is effectively a support
iconology in a chart.35 Here the question of to the investigation of meaning rather than
whether Weltanschauung or mind was the a form of explanation, then the whole sys-
ultimate subject was most clearly addressed. tem becomes much easier to co-ordinate with
Though the ways in which the "essential semiological and structuralist approaches.
tendencies of the human mind" express The table is, however, somewhat mislead-
themselves change under varying historical ing. Each level is a cycle rather than a
conditions, there was no implication that sequence, as Panofsky stated at another
mind itself was conceived as mutable. More- point in the argument.36 He recognized that
over, the essential tendencies of mind and a "history of style" could only be built up
the patterns of expression were not the ob- through analysis of the styles of individual
jects of knowledge in Panofsky's table but works, and that it sounded like a vicious
the prerequisites of iconological research. circle to use a history thus derived to classify
The familiarity with these essential ten- and explain the style of subsequent works.
dencies that is the basis of synthetic intui- However, he distinguished individual ob-
tion was not arrived at through research, servations of new data from the "sense"
but "given": it was a capacity rather than made by analysis of ranges of data. This

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"circulus methodicus" characterized the re- linguistic models. The essential tendencies
lationships between a "history of images" of the human mind that are the basis of
and individual iconographical problems, synthetic intuition constitute a conceptual
and between history of "cultural symptoms" modality rather than a code. Interpretation
and the "essential meaning" of specific does not involve correct association of sig-
works. Since the object and the starting as- nifier and signified. The object of iconology
sumptions of each level are interdependent, is close indeed to Sperber's notion of the
the object of each level is not necessarily the symbolic, which he expressly contrasted
goal of the investigation. The histories (of with the semiotic. In entirely different
style, types, and cultural symptoms, respec- language, Panofsky distinguished between
tively) with which one ostensibly begins meaning expressed in codes and meaning
analysis at each level (pre-iconographic, ico- arising from conceptual ordering- the cen-
nographic, and iconological) are in turn the tral issue of Sperber's critique of Levi-
products of historical analyses of works of Strauss. At root it is a question of whether
art. all meaning can lbe reduced to linguistic
At all three levels, analysis is focussed on models.
the characteristics which enable integration It is inevitalle that attempts to extend
of each new object of analysis into a histori- semiotics to non-linguistic phenomena shall
cal "sense." Diachronic ordering is not inci- present new problems and severe tests. And,
dental, it is essential. as Paul Bouissac has pointed out, one im-
There is another large scale distinction portant way to define and work through the
between Panofsky's approach and a "semi- external resistance and internal questioning
otic of art": consistency of the model. Semi- that face a fledgling discipline is to confront
ology is characterized by the assumption the new program with previous debates of
that communication is more homogeneous a similar nature.37 These texts are impor-
than previously suspected. "Meaning" is tant not only as a source of the "genealogy"
approached as a continuum whose levels are of the new discipline, but also for the very
transformations of each other, and by ex- epistemological, theoretical, and methodo-
tension, amenable to analogous analytical logical problems that led them to formulate
methods and descriptive models. Panofsky's the problems differently than in the new
typology of meaning is quite different. He program of semiotics. Many linguists, he
made a sharp distinction between levels of remarks, seem unaware of the tradition -
meaning, precisely in the matter of the a humanistic tradition - which has per-
methods to which they were accessible. mitted the definition of the problems they
It might perhaps be argued that Panofsky are trying to solve. They tend to proceed
did pursue the ideal of a homogeneous in- independently, or to view ideas parallel to
vestigation of meaning, but stopped short their own in earlier generations as "proto-
of solution of certain logical problems. By semiotic." The central point of his review
basing iconology on correct iconography is that semiotics cannot afford to overlook
and suggesting certain controls, he certainly previous debates on the issues the discipline
hoped to mitigate the epistemological prob- has claimed either by ignorance, or by chau-
lems of iconology. It does not follow that vinistically regarding them as "naive" or
he implied the essential homogeneity of all "incipient" forms of response to issues for-
three levels of meaning. There is no con- mulated meaningfully only in semiotics.
tinuity of method, model, or the key notion From this perspective, the question here
of "sign." The "linguistic" character of is whether Panofsky's "semiotic of art" was
Panofsky's whole system is very limited. The as yet naive, or whether the discrepancies
sporadic appearance of "sign-like" units between his ideas and those of contemporary
does not support attempts to extend that semiotics arise at least in part from the
notion to other parts of the analysis. failure of semiotics fully to encounter or
There is little in Panofsky's definition of resolve the problems that shaped his en-
intrinsic meaning to suggest application of quiry. The application of the tools of semi-

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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics 299

otic analysis of linguistic phenomena to 8 Roland Barthes, "Les sciences humaines et

l'oeuvre de Levi-Strauss," Annales: economies -so-
complex humanistic dimensions of meaning
is subject to the same generalized, often un- cietes-civilisations, XIX (November-December 1964),
1085-86; quoted in H. Stuart Hughes, The Ob-
defined values of our intellectual milieu structed Path, Torchbook edition (New York, 1969),
that so profoundly structured Panofsky's p. 285.
7 Dan
approach. A consistent vocabulary and Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism, Cambridge
Studies in Social Anthropology, trans. Alice L. Mor-
method based squarely on the most concrete
ton (Cambridge, 1975), a revised version of the
dimensions of language codes conveys a French text published by Hermann (Paris, 1974).
sense of greater homogeneity than Panof- 8 It is
important that his essays were presented as
sky achieved. But the question is still open an approach to Renaissance art, and accordingly sub-
as to whether aspects of semiotics that tran- titled. Panofsky's further work in iconography and
scend the analysis of codes and venture into iconology concerns mostly Renaissance material. The
approach is conceived, then, as a tool for analysis of
what Sperber called the "symbolic" have an art that balances naturalism and idealism in
really transcended the epistemological sta- largely narra ive representation of predominantly
tus of "synthetic intuition." literary subjects. The question of how art can "mean"
when it does not fit this model does not arise. It is
also important that much iconographical work on
Panofsky's pattern involves the painting of the
Netherlands in the fifteenth century. Northern art
1I have discussed the concept of "style" in con-
is, in Worringer's classic characterization, "literary":
temporary American art history as an index of these it is more focussed than even contemporary Italian
values in: Christine Hasenmueller McCorkel, "Sense art on meaning conveyed by motifs that refer directly
and Sensibility: An Epistemological Approach to A to literature.
Philosophy of Art History," Journal of Aesthetics and 9 Of course, from
many points of view, notably that
Art Criticism, XXXIV, No. 1 (Fall, 1975), 35-50. of Gestalt psychology, it could be argued that the
2 See, for example: Sheldon Nodelman, "Structural
processes Panofsky distinguished are actually con-
Analysis in Art and Anthropology," in Jacques Ehr- tinuous. The immediate concern here, however, is
mann, ed., Structuralism (Garden City, New York, not the validity of these distinctions, but their role
1970), pp. 79-93; originally published as a volume of in Panofsky's theory, and their implications for a
Yale French Studies, 1966. For a consideration of
rapprochement with semiotics.
Panofsky's concepts see: Hubert Damisch, "Semiotics 10 There is an important distinction between
and Iconography," Times Literary Supplement (Octo- sentation as an image of the world of experience and
ber 12, 1973), 1221ff. Meyer Schapiro's Words and as an image of a perceptual/mental interpretation of
Pictures, Approaches to Semiotics, 11, Thomas A. the data of experience. The metaphor Panofsky uses
Sebeok, ed. (The Hague, 1973), is virtually alone in tends to depict art as equivalent to the actualities
the attempt to develop elements of a semiotic of which are the basis of experience. It is not clear
visual form. whether this discrepancy has been simply missed,
3Giulio Carlo Argan, "Ideology and Iconology," dismissed as not pertinent, or resulted from the
trans. Rebecca West, Critical Inquiry, 2:2 (Winter, character of the metaphor and is hence extraneous
1975), 299 and 303. Originally published in Italian to inferences about Panofsky's notion of the psycho-
in Storia dell'arte.
4 Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism is most re- logical mechanism in question.
1 Culture and Communication: The Logic by
cently published by Meridian Books (Cleveland, Which Symbols are Connected, Themes in the Social
1957). "Iconography and Iconology," first appeared Sciences (Cambridge, 1976), p. 12ff.
as the Introduction to his Studies in Iconology: 12 "Iconography and
Iconology," p. 30.
Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance 13
Ibid., p. 38. It is also interesting that his remark
(New York, 1939); a slight revision titled "Iconog- on the "limitations placed on iconography especially
raphy and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study in this country," (p. 32) did not appear in the earlier
of Renaissance Art" appears in his Meaning in the version of the text. See Panofsky, Studies in Iconol-
Visual Arts (Garden City, New York, 1955).
5 Paul Bouissac has sLated the
ogy, Torchbook edition (New York, 1962). It seems,
point succinctly in then, a response to the intensification of empirical
a recent review of Alain Bey, Theories du signe et du bias in the American intellectual environment by the
sens titled: "The Golden Legend of Semiotics," mid 1950s.
Semiotica, 17:4, 371-84. He observed that new disci- ' Ibid., p. 31.
plines tend to seek a "genealogy" in prior statements 15 Ibid.
of key principles, and that: "The result is generally 16The
relationship between the world as seen by
a gratifying fallacy in as much as the texts which are the investigator and the world seen by the investiga-
recovered or unearthed for this purpose receive their tor indirectly through the work of art is not as simple
relevancy precisely from the point of view which as Panofsky's analogy makes it appear. See foot-
they are assumed to have generated, and not the re- note 10.
verse" (p. 371). 17
"Iconography and Iconology," pp. 35ff.

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's The Encounter, 1854, Musee Fabre,

Montpellier. signifier and signified that characterizes each. And,
Only this detail of the meaning of Courbet's picture it emerges in the course of the discussion that the
is adduced here. relationships among signs are highly structured and
19 Ernst Gombrich has elaborated this point in essential to the actualization of the meaning poten-
his well-known essay "Meditations on a Hobbyhorse tial of individual signs. Relationships among symbols
or the Roots of Artistic Form," reprinted in Medita- are not characterized by such highly developed sys-
tions on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the tems. Since signs are used in combination with signs
Theory of Art, 2nd ed. (New York, 1971). He used from the same context, the kind of signifier/signified
the metaphor of the relationship between a hobby- relationship is constant and insignificant once the
horse and the horse it represents to elaborate the system has been recognized and its conventions
idea that representations do not simply imitate what "bracketed." The same is not true of symbols, whose
they represent, but constitute a substitute that is signifier/signified association is uniquely defined. In
significantly different in function. Representation the case of signs, recognition of the "context" from
and represented must be linked by sufficient evidence which they are drawn (i.e., recognition of the system
of "likeness" in form and function to be placed in which they express) implies bracketing of the pat-
the same class. In the case of the hobbyhorse, both terned signifier/signified relationship, and interpre-
the toy and the horse are "horses" and are "ridable." tation of the meaning of signs in such a sequence
But the relationship is also characterized by differ- assumes application of knowledge of the systematic
ences: almost every aspect of the real horse is screened relationships that characterize that "context" or sys-
out except for the minimal visual details to establish tem. There is a connection between the signifier/
"identity" and the accommodatability of both to signified relationship within the structure of signa
different specifications of the concept "riding." Simi- and the patterned relationships among signa that
larly, motifs in painting are identified with their sub- characterize the subtypes sign and symbol. Much of
this connection is not explicitly expressed in Leach,
jects by the conventions of illusionism, but also lis-
tinct from them in function. Interpretation of mean- and where specific aspects of signs or symbols are
ing, it follows, should consider both the identity of isolated for discussion, it is not always entirely clear
whether the metaphoric or metonymic qualities ana-
representation and subject, and the distinction.
Panofsky's system describes the psychological mecha- lyzed are characteristic of the internal structure or
nism for recognition of the first, but not the second. the external relationships of the signa in question.
In effect, then, Panofsky's concepts reduce the mean- "Iconography and Iconology," p. 36.
26Ibid., p. 38.
ing of art to the metaphoric (or paradigmatic) asso-
ciation between representation and represented. His 27"Iconography and Iconology," pp. 36-38. In
analytical system does not explicitly include recogni- Panofsky's own iconographical work, investigation
tion of the change in context implied in the act of typically treats each image as a separate problem with
representation, nor does it provide for analysis of the comparatively little discussion of the implications of
function of motifs in this context. their interrelations. His approach gives us no method
20 For a
summary sta:ement of Leach's taxonomy, or vocabulary for the description or analysis of these
see Culture and Communication, pp. 12ff. Based on "metonymic" patterns within the work of art. This
the system of Mulder and Hervey, and ultimately omission need not, however, lead to the conclusion
Jakobson, the vocabulary adapts linguistic concepts that Panofsky excluded such observations absolutely
of the nature and systematic functioning of com- from his approach. Certain kinds of structured rela-
munication events to the analysis of non-linguistic tions among images, such as narrative sequence, axial
communicative behavior. Since it applies semiotic sequence, and spatial devices for juxtapositions that
transcend illusionistic verity have certainly been
concepts to behavior, it is a particularly valuable
formulation of these concepts for any consideration widely observed and incorporated into conclusions.
of their applicability to works of art. Panofsky's con- It may be simply that the significance of relationships
that tie together, for example, the voussoir reliefs
cepts would stand in somewhat different relationship
to other uses of the same terms. These differences that frame Rogier's Mary Altarpiece, or the images
are technical, however. Leach's formulation has been distributed along the center axis of Jan van Eyck's
chosen because it detaches these terms from linguistic Arnolfini Wedding have seemed so obvious to Panof-
and narrative material. sky and others that no "method" has seemed necessary
J. W. F. Mulder and S. G. J. Hervey, Theory of to their correct interpretation. In examples like these,
the Linguistic Sign, Janua Linguarum: Series Minor the relationship among images is certainly both sim-
136 (The Hague, 1972), pp. 13-17, quoted in Leach, ple and prominent. There remain, however, two
Culture and Communication, p. 13. problems: correct inierpretation of more subtle struc-
Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism, see pp. 12ff. for ture, and the logical importance of the kind and
statement of problem. He argues that there is a cog- extent of structures images may form to evaluation
nitive level of meaning - which he calls "the sym- of image as a semiotic concept.
2s Though not, of course, with what Sperber called
bolic"- that is not analyzable in terms of sign func-
tions, and hence inaccessible to semiotics. "the symbolic."
Leach, Culture and Communication, p. 15. The "Iconography and Iconology," p. 31.
concept is elaborated on p. 12, and pp. 14-16. p. 32.
24 The distinction between
sign and symbol is quite 31Ibid., p. 38.
clear so far as it concerns the relationship between Ibid., p. 39.

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Panofsky, Iconography, and Semiotics 301
33Ernst Gombrich, "The Logic of Vanity Fair: is a descendant of an intellectual tradition hard to
Alternatives to Historicism in the Study of Fashions, correlate with Levi-Strauss. He is a likely candidate,
Style, and Taste," in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, in fact, for that group Levi-Strauss denounced as
ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp, Library of Living Philoso- retreating into "history as the last refuge of transcen-
phers, Vol. XIV (La Salle, Ill., 1974), 11:925-957, dental humanism." (Savage Mind [Chicago, 1966],
p. 926. p. 262), quoted in H. Stuart Hughes, The Obstructed
-' See his "Art History as a Humanistic Discipline," Path, p. 284.
in his Meaning in the Visual Arts (Garden City, 3 "Iconography and Iconology," pp. 40-44.
N. Y., 1955). As a humanist of the classical tradition 3 Studies in
Iconology, "Introduction," p. 11,
- whose notion of the "symbolic" came from the note 3.
Neo-Kantian approach of Cassirer rather than from 3 "The Golden Legend of Semiotics," pp. 371-373.
anthropological or linguistic formulations - Panofsky

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