Jump to content

Erwin Panofsky

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Erwin Panofsky
Panofsky in the 1920s
Born(1892-03-30)March 30, 1892
Hannover, Germany
DiedMarch 14, 1968(1968-03-14) (aged 75)

Erwin Panofsky (March 30, 1892, in Hannover – March 14, 1968, in Princeton, New Jersey)[1] was a German-Jewish art historian, whose academic career was pursued mostly in the U.S. after the rise of the Nazi regime.

His work represents a high point in the modern academic study of iconography, including his hugely influential[2] Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art and his masterpiece Early Netherlandish Painting.[2] Many of his books are still in print, including Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939), Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955), and his 1943 study The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer.

Panofsky's ideas were highly influential in intellectual history in general,[3] particularly in his use of historical ideas to interpret artworks and vice versa.


European years[edit]

Panofsky was born in Hannover to a wealthy Jewish Silesian mining family. He grew up in Berlin, receiving his Abitur in 1910 at the Joachimsthalsches Gymnasium. In 1910–14 he studied law, philosophy, philology, and art history in Freiburg, Munich, and Berlin, where he heard lectures by the art historian Margarete Bieber, who was filling in for Georg Loeschcke.

While Panofsky was taking courses at Freiburg University, a slightly older student, Kurt Badt, took him to hear a lecture by the founder of the art history department, Wilhelm Vöge, under whom he wrote his dissertation in 1914. His topic, Dürer's artistic theory Dürers Kunsttheorie: vornehmlich in ihrem Verhältnis zur Kunsttheorie der Italiener was published the following year in Berlin as Die Theoretische Kunstlehre Albrecht Dürers. Because of a horse-riding accident, Panofsky was exempted from military service during World War I, using the time to attend the seminars of the medievalist Adolph Goldschmidt in Berlin.

The original 1920 manuscript of Panofsky's Habilitationsschrift, his second dissertation, which is titled 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 in August 2012 by art historian Stephan Klingen in an old Nazi safe in Munich's Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte.[4][5][6]

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."[7]

Panofsky's academic career in art history took him to the University of Berlin, University of Munich, and finally to University of Hamburg, where he taught from 1920 to 1933. It was during this period that 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), based on the ideas of Ernst Cassirer.

American years (from 1931)[edit]

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 art historian wife (since 1916), Dorothea "Dora" Mosse (1885–1965). He and his wife became part of the Kahler-Kreis. By 1934 he was teaching concurrently at New York University and Princeton University, and in 1935 he was invited to join the faculty of the new Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained for the rest of his career.[8]

Panofsky was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,[9] the American Philosophical Society,[10] the British Academy and a number of other national academies. In 1954 he became foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.[11] 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; the lectures later became Early Netherlandish Painting.

He became particularly well known for his studies of symbols and iconography in art. First in a 1934 article, then in his Early Netherlandish Painting (1953), Panofsky was the first to interpret Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait (1934) 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. Similarly, in his monograph on Dürer, Panofsky gives lengthy "symbolic" analyses of the prints Knight, Death, and the Devil and Melencolia I, the former based on Erasmus's Handbook of a Christian Knight.

Panofsky was known to be a friend with physicists Wolfgang Pauli and Albert Einstein. His younger son, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, became a renowned physicist who specialized in particle accelerators. His elder son, Hans A. Panofsky, was "an atmospheric scientist who taught at Pennsylvania State University for 30 years and who was credited with several advances in the study of meteorology".[12] As Wolfgang Panofsky related, his father used to call his sons "meine beiden Klempner" ("my two plumbers"). William S. Heckscher was a student, fellow emigre, and close friend. In 1973 he was succeeded at Princeton by Irving Lavin. Erwin Panofsky has been recognized as both a "highly distinguished" professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, and in Jeffrey Chipps' biography of the subject as "the most influential art historian of the twentieth century".[13] In 1999, the new "Panofsky Lane", in that Institute's faculty housing complex, was named in his honor.[14]


Panofsky was the most eminent representative of iconology, a method of studying the history of art created by Aby Warburg and his disciples, especially Fritz Saxl, at the Warburg Institute in Hamburg. A personal and professional friendship linked him to Fritz Saxl in collaboration with whom he produced a large part of his work. He gave a short and precise description of his method in his article "Iconography and Iconology", published in 1939.

Three strata of subject matter or meaning[edit]

Panofsky made important contributions to the study of iconography and iconology, 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:[15]

  • 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 comparison of 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 an 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."[16]

The method of iconology, which had developed following Erwin Panofsky, has been critically discussed since the mid-1950s, in part also strongly (Otto Pächt, Svetlana Alpers). However, among the critics, no one has found a model of interpretation that could completely replace that of Panofsky. [17]

As regards the interpretation of Christian art, that Panofsky researched throughout his life, the iconographic interest in texts as possible sources remains important, because the meaning of Christian images and architecture is closely linked to the content of biblical, liturgical and theological texts, which were usually considered authoritative by most patrons, artists and viewers.[18]

Style and the Film Medium[edit]

In his 1936 essay "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures (text online), Panofsky seeks to describe the visual symptoms endemic" to the medium of film.[19]


In 2016, the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History) in Munich founded the Panofsky-Professur (Panofsky Professorship). The first Panofsky Professors have been Victor Stoichita (2016), Gauvin Alexander Bailey (2017), Caroline van Eck (2018), and Olivier Bonfait (2019).[20] His work has greatly influenced the theory of taste developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in books such as The Rules of Art and Distinction. In particular, Bourdieu first adapted his notion of habitus from Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism,[3][21] having earlier translated the work into French.


Almost all texts are accessible online, see references.

Posthumously published works[edit]

  • Three Essays on Style (1995):[35] "What Is Baroque?" (prev. unpubl.), "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures" (1936, as "On Movies", rev. in 1947), "The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator" (1963). Edited and introduced by Irving Lavin, with a memoir by William S. Heckscher.
  • "The Mouse That Michelangelo Failed to Carve" (1964)[36]
  • "Carmina Latina" (2018), edited with introduction and short annotations by Gereon Becht-Jördens[37]


  1. ^ "Erwin Panofsky – Dictionary of Art Historians". arthistorians.info. Archived from the original on March 3, 2020. Retrieved March 25, 2016.
  2. ^ a b Shone, Richard and Stonard, John-Paul, eds. The Books that Shaped Art History, chapter 7. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Chartier, Roger. Cultural History, pp. 23–24 (from "Intellectual History and the History of Mentalités"). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988
  4. ^ Uta Nitschke-Joseph, "A Fortuitous Discovery: An Early Manuscript by Erwin Panofsky Reappears in Munich". Institute for Advanced Study (Spring 2013).
  5. ^ "Der Fund im Panzerschrank", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 31, 2012.
  6. ^ "Die jüngsten Funde haben unser Wissen bereichert", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 31 August 2012.
  7. ^ artforum.com: International News Digest, September 26, 2012
  8. ^ "Erwin Panofsky" (PDF). Institute for Advanced Study. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  9. ^ "Erwin Panofsky". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. February 9, 2023. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  10. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved April 14, 2023.
  11. ^ "Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 26, 2015.
  12. ^ "Hans A. Panofsky, 70, Scientist". New York Times. March 11, 1988. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  13. ^ Jeffrey Chipps Smith, Introduction in Erwin Panofsky "The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer", Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2005, p.XXVII)
  14. ^ "Streets at the Institute". Institute for Advanced Study. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  15. ^ Panofsky, Erwin. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. pp. 5–9.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Dieter Wuttke (2017). Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), in: The Routledge Companion to Medieval Iconography, ed. by Colum Hourihane, London and New York, pp. 105-122, here p. 119).
  18. ^ Ralf van Bühren, and Maciej Jan Jasiński (2024). The invisible divine in the history of art. Is Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) still relevant for decoding Christian iconography?, in Church, Communication and Culture 9, pp. 1-36, here pp. 1-4, 9, 23, 28.
  19. ^ Panofsky, Erwin; Lavin, Irving (1995). Three Essays on Style. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. pp. 3. ISBN 978-0262661034.
  20. ^ "Panofsky Lecture — Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte".
  21. ^ Review Archived April 9, 2009, at the Wayback Machine of Holsinger, The Premodern Condition, in Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature 6:1 (Winter 2007).
  22. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1968). Idea: A Concept in Art Theory. Harper & Row. ISBN 9780064300490.
  23. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1991). Perspective as Symbolic Form (PDF). Translated by Christopher S. Wood. Zone Books. ISBN 9780942299526.
  24. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1939). Studies in Iconology. New York: Oxford University Press.
  25. ^ Erwin Panofsky (1955) [1943]. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (PDF). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00303-3.
  26. ^ Suger (1946). Panofsky, Erwin (ed.). Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures. Princeton University Press.
  27. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1957) [1951]. Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. New York: Meridian Books.
  28. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1958) [1953]. Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character: Text. Harvard University Press.
  29. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1955). Meaning in the Visual Arts. Doubleday. ISBN 9780226645513.
  30. ^ Panofsky, Dora; Panofsky, Erwin (1956). Pandora's Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol. Pantheon Books. ISBN 9780691018249.
  31. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1965) [1960]. Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell.
  32. ^ Panofsky, Erwin; Janson, Horst Woldemar (1964). Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini. Abrams.
  33. ^ Klinbansky, Raymond; Panofsky, Erwin; Saxl, Fritz (1979) [1964]. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. Nedeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint.
  34. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1969). Problems in Titian, mostly iconographic. New York University Press. ISBN 9780714813257.
  35. ^ Panofsky, Erwin (1995). Irving Lavin (ed.). Three Essays on Style. Cambridge (Mass.) and London: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-16151-6.
  36. ^ "The Mouse That Michelangelo Failed to Carve" (PDF). Essays in Memory of Karl Lehmann. New York: Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. 1964. pp. 242–255.
  37. ^ In: Gereon Becht-Jördens (Ed.): Ewig die Liebe allein. Erwin Panofsky, der sich auch Pan nennt. Lateinische Gedichte gesammelt, revidiert, berichtigt und mit einigen knappen Anmerkungen versehen. Mit Einleitung in lateinischer und deutscher Sprache sowie deutschen Versübertragungen. Königshausn & Neumann, ISBN 978-3-8260-6260-5 (in Latin and German).
Bibliographical sources

External links[edit]