Erwin Panofsky

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Erwin Panofsky

Erwin Panofsky (30 March 1892 – 14 March 1968) was a German art historian. His academic career was pursued mostly in the U.S. after the rise of the Nazi regime. Panofsky's work remains highly influential in the modern academic study of iconography, and many of his works are still in print, including Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939), and his eponymous 1943 study of Albrecht Dürer.


Erwin Panofsky was born in Hannover, Germany. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Munich, and Freiburg, where Kurt Badt was one of his fellow students. He received his Ph.D. dissertation, supervised by Wilhelm Vöge, in 1914 from the University of Freiburg. His academic career in art history took him to the universities of University of Berlin, University of Munich, and finally to University of Hamburg, where he taught from 1920 to 1933. It was during this period when his first major writings on art history began to appear. A significant early work was Idea: Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunstheorie (1924; translated into English as Idea: A Concept in Art Theory).

Panofsky first came to the United States in 1931 to teach at New York University. Although initially allowed to spend alternate terms in Hamburg and New York City, after the Nazis came to power in Germany his appointment in Hamburg was terminated, because he was Jewish, and he remained permanently in the United States with his wife, Dorothea (Dora) Mosse. By 1934 he was teaching concurrently at New York University and Princeton University. In 1935, he was invited to join the faculty of the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Panofsky was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the British Academy and a number of other national academies. In 1962 he received the Haskins Medal of The Medieval Academy of America. In 1947–1948 Panofsky was the Charles Eliot Norton professor at Harvard University.

Panofsky became particularly well known for his studies of symbols and iconography within works of art. First in a 1934 article, then in his Early Netherlandish Painting, Panofsky was the first to interpret Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1434) as not only a depiction of a wedding ceremony, but also a visual contract testifying to the act of marriage. Panofsky identifies a plethora of hidden symbols that all point to the sacrament of marriage. In recent years, this conclusion has been challenged, but Panofsky's work with what he called "hidden" or "disguised" symbolism is still very much influential in the study and understanding of Northern Renaissance art.

Panofsky was known to be friends with physicists Wolfgang Pauli and Albert Einstein. His son, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, became a renowned physicist who specialized in particle accelerators. His other son was a meteorologist. As Wolfgang Panofsky related, his father used to call his sons "meine beiden Klempner" ("my two plumbers").

Three strata of subject matter or meaning[edit]

Panofsky made important contributions to the study of iconography, including his interpretation of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1434, pictured).

In Studies in Iconology Panofsky details his idea of three levels of art-historical understanding:[1]

  • Primary or natural subject matter: The most basic level of understanding, this stratum consists of perception of the work’s pure form. Take, for example, a painting of the Last Supper. If we stopped at this first stratum, such a picture could only be perceived as a painting of 13 men seated at a table. This first level is the most basic understanding of a work, devoid of any added cultural knowledge.
  • Secondary or conventional subject matter (iconography): This stratum goes a step further and brings to the equation cultural and iconographic knowledge. For example, a Western viewer would understand that the painting of 13 men around a table would represent the Last Supper. Similarly, a representation of a haloed man with a lion could be interpreted as a depiction of St. Mark.
  • Tertiary or intrinsic meaning or content (iconology): This level takes into account personal, technical, and cultural history into the understanding of a work. It looks at art not as an isolated incident, but as the product of a historical environment. Working in this stratum, the art historian can ask questions like “why did the artist choose to represent The Last Supper in this way?” or “Why was St. Mark such an important saint to the patron of this work?” Essentially, this last stratum is a synthesis; it is the art historian asking "what does it all mean?"

For Panofsky, it was important to consider all three strata as one examines Renaissance art. Irving Lavin says, "it was this insistence on, and search for, meaning—especially in places where no one suspected there was any—that led Panofsky to understand art, as no previous historian had, as an intellectual endeavor on a par with the traditional liberal arts."[2]

Manuscript of Panofsky's Habilitationsschrift[edit]

In August 2012, the original manuscript of Panofsky's Habilitationsschrift of 1920, which is entitled "Die Gestaltungsprinzipien Michelangelos, besonders in ihrem Verhältnis zu denen Raffaels" ("The Composition Principles of Michelangelo, particularly in their relation to those of Raphael"), was found by art historian Stephan Klingen in an old Nazi safe in Munich's Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte.[3][4][5] It had long been assumed that this manuscript was lost in 1943/44 in Hamburg, as this important study was never published and the art historian's widow was unable to locate it in Hamburg. It seems as if art historian Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, who had studied under Panofsky, was in the possession of this manuscript from 1946 to 1970. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Willibald Sauerländer shed some light on the question of whether Heydenreich shared his recovery of the manuscript or not: "Panofsky has historically distanced himself from his early writings on Michelangelo, as he tired of the subject, and (according to Sauerländer) developed a professional conflict with Austro-Hungarian art historian Johannes Wilde, who accused Panofsky of not crediting him with ideas gleaned from a conversation they had about Michelangelo drawings. Perhaps Panofsky didn't care about the whereabouts of his lost work and Heydenreich was not malicious in keeping it a secret ... but questions still remain."[6]


His work has greatly influenced the theory of taste developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in books such as The Rules of Art or Distinction. In particular, Bourdieu first adapted his notion of habitus from Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.[7]


  • Idea: A Concept in Art Theory (1924)
  • Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927)
  • Studies in Iconology (1939)
  • The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943)
  • Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951)
  • Early Netherlandish Painting (1953)
  • Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)
  • Pandora's Box: the Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol (1956) (with Dora Panofsky)
  • Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960)
  • Tomb Sculpture (1964)
  • Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (1964) (with Raymond Klibansky and Fritz Saxl)
  • Problems in Titian, mostly iconographic (1969)
  • Three Essays on Style (1995; ed. Irving Lavin)


  1. ^ Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. pp. 5–9.
  2. ^ Lavin, Irving. "Panofsky's History of Art" in Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. Princeton: Institute for Advanced Study, 1995. p. 6.
  3. ^ Uta Nitschke-Joseph, "A Fortuitous Discovery: An Early Manuscript by Erwin Panofsky Reappears in Munich". Institute for Advanced Study (Spring 2013).
  4. ^ "Der Fund im Panzerschrank", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 31 August 2012.
  5. ^ "Die jüngsten Funde haben unser Wissen bereichert", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 31 August 2012.
  6. ^ International News Digest, September 26, 2012
  7. ^ Review of Holsinger, The Premodern Condition, in Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature 6:1 (Winter 2007).
  • Holly, Michael Ann, Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, (1985)
  • Ferretti, Sylvia, Cassirer, Panofsky, Warburg: Symbol, Art, and History, New Haven, Yale University Press, (1989)
  • Lavin, Irving, editor, Meaning in the Visual Arts: View from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), Princeton, Institute for Advanced Study, (1995)
  • Panofsky, Erwin, & Lavin, Irving (Ed.), Three essays on style, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, (1995)
  • Panofsky, Erwin. in the Dictionary of Art Historians Lee Sorensen, ed.
  • Wuttke, Dieter (Ed.), Erwin Panofsky. Korrespondenz, Wiesbanden, Harrassowitz, (2001–2011)

External links[edit]