I read a short essay entitled Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance by Panofsky today. I was drawn to the article by the title and my current project. Moreover the essay was first written in 1939 but republished in 1972 and so the ideas have stood the test of time. I also had read about some of Panofsky’s views in Chandler’s Semiotics.

Meaning/subject matter as distinct from form

Values created by:

  • primary (factual)
  • secondary (phenomenal/iconographical) meanings
  • intrinsic meanings

Primary meaning is understood through experience whereas secondary meaning is understood through cultural knowledge. But the last – deepest form of interpretation according to Panofsky is through understanding things through their intrinsic meaning. That is by interpreting what we see psychologically while recognising that our psychology is formed in part socially (so he recognises that nationality, class and religion play a part).

Experiment: here is a photo that I am to analyse using the above format.

1916 June Moulle France June JL Dunbar

Primary meaning: this is a monochrome photo of nine people marching between two buildings. Little cultural knowledge is needed to determine this information.

Secondary meaning: the men are soldiers. Their uniforms and the form of dress  with kilt capes and bagpipes identify the soldiers as Scottish. The type of photographic evidence suggest this is early 20th century. It could be from WW1. Knowledge of history and culture are needed for this interpretation.

Intrinsic meaning: the image is of my grandfather. He is the Pipe Major nearest the camera and the image is of him and the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots in Moulle in France in 1916. To know this one needs both personal, familial and social knowledge.

Theories like this don’t really do much for me. Compare this approach to Barthes dissection of the meaning in Rhetoric of The Image where its code is laid bare. That approach allowed me to see anew and differently whereas this approach states the rather obvious. For example, using Barthes approach I can se that this image is about nations, purpose, unity and conflict through the image showing uniforms, uniformity in movement, form of dress (for war not ceremonial).

I’m not sure where this takes me now though….


Panofsky,E.(1939)(1972 edn)Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance,Published by Westview Press

Chandler, D. (2002) (2006 edn) Semiotics,  Published by Routledge

About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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