Panofsky: Methods

Jan Van Eyck,The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434,oil on panelNational Gallery, London

Jan Van Eyck
The Arnolfini Portrait
oil on panel
National Gallery, London

Concerned with art historical methodology, Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) attempted to move away from the interpretations of art of his predecessors, which he felt were too concerned with formal qualities. According to Panofsky,  analysis of art occurs in three stages: primary or natural subject matter, secondary or conventional subject matter, and means of intrinsic meaning or content.  Primary subject matter is expressed though the identification of pure forms, such as the line and color of an object, or the specific way an object is shaped.  These pure forms were seen as the carriers for a natural meaning, which all together make up a pre-iconographical description of the work.  The next level of meaning, secondary subject matter, deals with the connection of artistic motifs with themes and concepts, thus identifying stories and allegories within the work.  Identification of these symbols and narratives can be described as the iconography of the image. Finally, one may interpret a work through the intrinsic meaning or content.  This level of analysis is associated with what Panofsky calls the iconology of the image, the historical environment, personal history, and technical skill that influenced the creation of the work.  Iconology puts the work in a certain place in the scope of art history, instead of only looking at the work as a singular object.

Before Panofsky had even written down his methodological ideas, he was applying his theories to works of art.  For example, in his 1938 article “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait”, Panofsky analyzed the title piece using both iconographical and iconological interpretation, painstakingly tracing the literature on this portrait’s true meaning though the literature of various historians, thus making use of his knowledge of literary sources.


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