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In a dictionary definition you will find iconography described as the study of traditional images or symbols and iconology with a similar definition as the study of icons or artistic symbolism. This might suggest they are synonyms and they are commonly used as such in describing the study of art images. However, iconography can be a confusing term. Its original meaning as a study of icons, panel pictures of Christ or a Saint, is still retained in some contemporary religious contexts, Greek Orthodox for example. Furthermore, from about the seventeenth century iconography was used in a secular context as a noun to describe a collection of portraits. Art historians today accept the term iconography as referring to the description and classification of images. Importantly, due to the influence of Erwin Panofsky (1892 - 1968), there is often a distinction made between the two terms with iconology referring specifically to the interpretation of images.
At this stage you should read the generally accepted definition of iconography in Paul Duro & Michael Greenhalgh's Essential Art History. (iconology is not listed separately) and in Robert Belton's Words on Art.
Pioneering art historians of this century such as Aby Warburg (1866 - 1929), Fritz Saxl (1890 - 1948) and Ernst Gombrich used the term iconology in the broad sense of an interpretative study of images with the implication that such a study included an iconographic collation of sources. Aby Warburg was the first to describe "the science of art history" as iconology, in 1912, but Panofsky attempted to explain a distinction between the terms iconography and iconology. [I have intentionally overlooked here a recent attempt by William Mitchell to reinvent the term iconology - Mitchell, W. J. T., Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986.]

Erwin Panofsky's explanation of Iconography and Iconology.

For Panofsky the study of art objects and images could be systematized into three levels.

The first was simple identification through familiarity. Looking at a painting of an historical battle scene, for example, we can only identify and name weapons such as crossbows with which we are familiar, although we can readily understand the expressions of pain and anguish on the faces of wounded soldiers. Panofsky explained such divisions as factual and expressional. Factual and expressional apprehension will vary greatly, depending on experience. Obviously, an expert on ancient weaponry will identify a great variety of motifs; just as viewer with experience of battle might react very differently to those without such experience.

The second dealt with the domain of iconography. That is: the linking of artistic motifs with themes, concepts or conventional meaning. For example, at this level a Renaissance image of a man struck in the eye with an arrow from a crossbow might be apprehended beyond its horrific expressional value as representational of, or an allegory for, the power of linear perspective. Such recognition would be made possible because of a knowledge of Renaissance treatises on perspective and similar or related images.

The third, most contentious level of interpretation was iconological. At this deepest level, the intrinsic meaning or content of the work was apprehended. It is worth quoting Panofsky directly here as he explains this intrinsic meaning.

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. (p.30)

This privileging of individual personality may no longer read like a red cape to a bull in the post-Marxist world of art history but it remains problematic, if only for its distinct scent of popular psychology. Importantly, Panofsky understood iconology to be more than a search for symptoms, but an exhaustive interpretation from technical knowledge of art production, through comprehensive iconographical knowledge to a final underlying principle or conclusion. Afterall, the symbolic interpretation of perspective as an arrow in the eye by Renaissance artists almost demands a conclusion about the attitudes to science in that age. Such an interpretation of the "symbolical" values of the Renaissance would make a perfect example of an iconological study as Panofsky conceived of the term. Iconological interpretation was not related to study of intentionality (or what the artist intended to express). He claimed "symbolical" values might, in fact, radically differ from the conscious intention of the artist. The first two levels of meaning, the natural and iconographical, were phenomenal, while the third, intrinsic meaning, was beyond the sphere of conscious volition. Panofsky summarised the three levels in a chart, shown below.

Iconography and Iconology -Synoptical table from Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1974 ,pp. 40, 41 (originally published in 1939 in Studies in Iconology)

(Hist. of Tradition)
I Primary or natural subject matter - (A) factual, (B) expressional - constituting the world of artistic motifsPre-iconographical description (and pseudo-formal analysis)Practical experience (familiarity with objects and events).History of style (insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, objects and events were expressed by forms).
II Secondary or conventional subject matter, constituting the world of images, stories and allegories.Iconographical analysisKnowledge of literary sources (familiarity with specific themes and concepts).History of types (insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions specific themes or concepts were expressed by objects and events).
III Intrinsic meaning or content, constituting the world of "symbolical" values.Iconological interpretationSynthetic intuition (familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind), conditioned by personal psychology and "Weltanschauung"History of cultural symptoms or "symbols" in general (insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes

This separation of levels was only intended as an explanation of a process which he understood would be fully integrated and ultimately shot through with intuition or specifically "synthetic intuition" as he termed it. The pre-iconographic description and iconographical levels are important correctives or controls since every interpretation will be subjective and to more or less degrees irrational, (for every intuitive approach will be conditioned by the interpreter's psychology and "Weltanschauung" p.38).

Nevertheless, iconographic knowledge was the core of Panofsky's method and probably the only feature left untarnished by modern scholars. Even the first stage of factual or natural apprehension has been made to seem a naive concept. In a recent critique of Panofsky's methodology, Stephen Bann quotes Jonathan Crary's theories on the changing role of the observer to dismiss Panofsky's idea of an "innocent eye", although he fails to acknowledge the inevitable fragility of any theory when tested against time. A test which Crary's theories have yet to pass. [See: Stephen Bann Meaning/Interpretation (Chapter Seven) in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff eds. Critical Terms for Art History, 1996 pp. 87-100] -copy in Short Loans in Huxley Library, University of Newcastle.

For the sake of balance, you might read a short essay by Rudolf Wittkower (1901 - 1971), a friend of Panofsky and enthusiastic follower of his iconological approach. The essay Interpretation of Visual Symbols extends Panofsky's three levels of interpretation to four: "literal representational, the literal thematic, multiple and expressive meaning." [See: Rudolf Wittkower Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, T&H, 1977 Chapter 14 pp.174 - 187] - copy in Short Loans in Huxley Library, University of Newcastle.

In a collection of essays published as a Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky, Wendy Steiner makes the telling observation that in the contemporary world of photographic images it is virtually impossible to remove an image from its particular social context. Put another way: our interpretation of the photograph is so intertwined with its "expressional" (to use Panofsky's term) relationships that we can never abandon our emotional attachment to penetrate below the first level of analysis. [See: "The Vast Disorder of Objects: Photography and the Demise of Formalist Aesthetics", in Irving Lavin ed., Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside, Princeton, 1995 pp.195 - 205]

For an intelligent brief summary of Panofsky's general art historical methodology, see: Eric Fernie Art History and its Methods: a critical anthology, (Phaidon Press) London, 1995 pp.181 - 183. Also relevant, if you have a particular interest in the development of art historical methodology, is Christopher Wood's introduction to his translation of Panofsky's 1927 essay on Perspective as Symbolic Form. [see: Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, (Zone Books) New York, 1991 pp.7 - 24]

As Stephen Bann acknowledged, in the essay quoted above, the sustaining power of Panofsky's writing was based on his skill and diligence in digging out the iconographic and literary sources that would unearth the meaning of a picture. This is a skill that every student must develop and it is built on the acquisition of a comprehensive knowledge of the history of pictorial representation. Speculative fantasies about the meaning of a painting might seem more poetic or interesting than a reasoned analysis based on iconographic and literary sources but such is not the case. This is best illustrated by reading an extract from Dora and Erwin Panofsky's study of the mythical symbol of Pandora's Box in which they analyze a drawing by Rosso Fiorentino.
Before, you start I will put the extract in context since it is written as the opening to chapter five of their book Pandora's Box (2nd ed. 1961) and therefore makes reference to material from earlier chapters.
There is a reference to "the Erasmian pyxis" that relates to their chapter two in which they explain the"Origin of the Box" since in the original classical version of the Pandora story she opened a pithos or large vessel or storage vase, not a box. Only in Italy, does the phrase "vaso di Pandora" exist today as it is now taken for granted that Pandora opened a small box. The origin of the box version, it was shown, was the publication by Erasmus of Rotterdam of Adagiorum chiliades tres (1508) "one of the world's most popular and influential books" [ p15]. Erasmus replaced the pithos with a pyxis or small container in his now accepted version of the story. In all versions of the story, when Pandora, or sometimes her husband Epimetheus, opens the box or vessel to release upon humanity all forms of Vice, the Virtues evaporate to the heavens and only Hope is caught by the lid and remains.
After reading this extract you may wish to read more on the myth of Pandora by visiting the the Perseus site.

Not so much to keep the integrity of the original, but to fully indicate the level of scholarship involved in the process, I have included the original footnotes; although I have changed the figure numbering. Figures 1, 2 and 3 were numbered respectively in the original as 16, 17 and 18. The file will take a little time to load as it opens with the image under discussion.
After reading this extract from Pandora's Box, which describes a single image, we will look at an extract by Fritz Saxl, who worked with Panofsky in their formative years as art historians.
Copyright 1999, Ross Woodrow and The University of Newcastle --All Rights Reserved