Applying Erwin Panofsky's Theories in an Interpretation of the

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Applying Erwin Panofsky's Theories in an Interpretation of the Powered By Docstoc
					                                                                        Brenning Johnston
                                                                     Art 31 Museum Paper
                                                                             Lindsay Twa
                                                                                  12-4-02

Applying Erwin Panofsky’s Theories in an Interpretation of the Funerary Urn

       According to a 1955 article entitled, Meaning in the Visual Arts, by art historian,

Erwin Panofsky, a work of art should be identified and interpreted based on the study of

iconology. “Iconology is that branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the

subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form” (iPanofsky 26). An

Ancient Funerary Urn from the Sicilian, Centuripe culture, during the period [250-225

BC], will be used as an example in understanding Panofsky’s iconological theories

(iiAncient). The process consists of three important steps in the interpretation of a work

of art beginning with pre-iconographical analysis, followed by iconographical analysis,

and finally the iconological conclusion of the work.

       In reference to Panofsky’s theory of pre-iconographical description, emphasis is

first and foremost placed on a formal analysis of the Ancient Funerary Urn. Divided into

several separate pieces, the 35-½ foot painted ceramic vase represents the traditional

Greek offering of an ewer presented to a bride on her wedding day (Ancient). The main

panel in the center of the vase depicts a brightly painted wedding scene against a pink

background and shows a bride assisted by her attendants in preparation for her wedding

day. To the left of the bride a flying Eros offers a garland and a small naked child holds

her arms up to the bridal attendants, while further left a woman looks on at the chaotic

scene (Ancient). On the right side a woman with a tambourine appears to lead a

procession to a small door, symbolizing either the house of the groom, or Hades, as a

reference to the underworld (iiiCoffee). Registered bands above and beneath the main
panel are modified after styles of Classical Greek architecture. A Doric frieze directly

above the main panel on the vase is made up of alternating three columned structures

topped by a flattened entablature with small cupid figures alternating between the

triglyohs, all shown in carved relief form. This reference to Ancient and Classical Greek

Architecture above the painted wedding scene creates a sense of indecision from the

artist, as if he cannot decide what to focus on, painting or architecture (Coffee). A

second band above the first depicts alternating relief images in the shape of rounded

bull’s heads and vertical human figures. A larger register below the main panel portrays

classical Greek symbols of molded leaves and flowered rosettes in carved relief

sculpture. A separate miniature funerary vase sits on top of the larger one and depicts the

head of a winged female (Ancient). It is theorized that the figure is a portrait of the

woman whose ashes are contained in the urn, or that she is a symbolic reference to Nike,

Goddess of Victory (Coffee).

       Panofsky uses his theory of iconography as the second method of analysis in the

identification of a work of art. While Panofsky notes that pre-iconographical analysis of

a work relies on a basis of practical experience, he states, “iconographical analysis,

dealing with images, stories and allegories instead of with motifs, presupposes … much

more than that familiarity with objects and events which we acquire by practical

experience” (Panofsky 35). Rather, iconographical analysis looks more in depth at

individual symbols and meanings within the work of art. As one of only a few surviving

painted Greek urns on display today, this Funerary Urn depicts many important symbols

and theories of Greek culture from the Ancient period. The wealth of decorative detail on

the urn “blurs distinctions between the iconography of marriage and that of death”
(Ancient). It is ironic that the main scene of this funerary vessel, a symbol of death in

itself, should be a wedding scene in which a bride prepares for what would be considered

the most important day of her life. The central happy scene done in richly painted colors

with gold gilding ironically leads to a procession to a door that likely represents the

underworld, or death, on the right side of the panel (Coffee). While theories of the

underlying meaning of the work may vary, the artist’s true intentions are unclear to the

viewer. Because the subject matter combines ideas of marriage and death, the two most

important events in a woman’s life, “the appearance of protective friends, Erotes

(cupids), and a Nike [are] appropriate for both of [these] major transitions” (Ancient).

Marriage represented a major transition in a woman’s life; it was an honorary right of

passage that lead to a new life with a new husband, a new home, and new values. While

death also marked an important transition to the Greeks, it represented more of a

mysterious right of passage in life. According to Greek beliefs, “the deceased entered a

place of mystery and obscurity that humans could not define precisely” (ivStokstad 160).

The merging of marriage and death as the subject matter depicted in the Funerary Urn

creates an unusual, yet effective, combination and initiates various responses from the

viewer, leaving the topic open for individual interpretation.

       According to Panofsky’s final analytical theory, “iconological interpretation

requires something more than a familiarity with specific themes or concepts as

transmitted through literary sources” (Panofsky 38). Iconological analysis combines all

formal and symbolic qualities to give an overall meaning, or message to the work. The

urn could possibly have been created to hold the ashes of a young bride that died

unexpectedly on or near her wedding day. It could have held the remnants of an older
woman’s ashes, who may have simply chosen her wedding day as the scene to be painted

on her urn because it held such special memories. There are countless possibilities to the

urn’s precise use and part of the excitement in a work so rare and ancient lies in the

ability of one’s imagination to create various stories and meanings in the underlying

symbols. I chose to interpret the subject as a depiction of the most important events in a

woman’s life. After adolescence, a woman reached the critical point in her life when she

was mature enough to marry and become a mother. During this particular time in history,

a woman’s life goal was to marry a respectable man and give him as many children as

she physically could. Her first and foremost goal was marriage and motherhood and she

practiced these tasks until her death. Because death was considered a mystery to the

Greeks, it also marked an important turning point. After death no one knew what

happened, therefore during life one must strive to be the best person that they may be in

hopes of going on to heaven, and not to the underworld. This urn represents a woman

meeting her goal of marriage, however, the mystery of death is implied in the symbolic

reference to the door of the underworld, and by the fact that the scene is painted on a

funerary urn.

       I believe Panofsky’s analytical theories involving the study of iconology in

relation to the identification and interpretation of a work of art to be a very accurate

method of critical analysis is the art world. By first examining an object’s formal

qualities in the form of pre-iconographical analysis, the “primary or natural subject

matter is subdivided into factual and expressional” (Panofsky 28). The purer details are

not forgotten, and the most basic observational points are made. The second step,

involving iconographical analysis, takes a closer look at each detail within the work of art
and focuses more on individual symbols and meanings behind each painted or sculpted

mark on the piece of art. The final step, iconological analysis, combines previously noted

observations and theories to create and interpret the overall underlying message, or

meaning of the work of art. In relation to the Ancient Funerary Urn, Panofsky’s theory

was used to relate the most important observational outside qualities of the vase to the

symbolic references within the ceramic urn, ultimately leaving the final message open for

interpretation from individual viewers.




iErwin Panofsky, "Iconography and Iconology," in Meaning in the Visual Arts: Papers in and on
Art History, Garden City, NY, 1955, pp. 26-41.

ii
      Ancient Funerary Urn, Sicilian, Centuripe [250-225 BC]. North Carolina Museum of Art.
iii
      Coffee, John. Personal Interview, North Carolina Museum of Art. 8 Nov. 2002.
iv
 Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History, Second Edition, Vol. 1. The University of Kansas. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
NJ, 1995.