Panofsky – the 3 phases of the iconological method of art analysis


The Panofsky method

In 1939, Panofsky presents his iconological method of analysis of art.

For him, the analysis could not merely depend upon literary sources, which after all, are not always available.

He goes on to investigate the way in which, according to the different historical conditions to which the artist is subjected, themes, subjects or facts are chosen to be represented. I.e., he defends the study of meanings.

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Erwin Panofsky

Erwin Panofsky

Panofsky gave this example:

A man raises his hat. In iconographic terms, we basically see is the action in which a man takes his hat off his head. However, analysing it under an iconological point of view, there is a meaning to the gesture.Iconography of the saints online course

If we assume that we have two people involved (the one who sees the action and the one who acts it) who are familiar to the western culture, they will know that it is a gesture of friendliness and respect. However, reaching this level of understanding depends on a prior knowledge of the social values that involve this same gesture.


And so Panofsky identifies the three levels of understanding that we have already seen:

  1. The primary or natural,
  2. The secondary or conventional,
  3. The tertiary or intrinsic.


Using as an example Da Vinci’s «Last Supper», let’s look again at each one of these stages.



Erwin Panofsky method applied to the last supper The last supper-Leonardo da Vinci, from the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan.

The primary level

The primary level should correspond to the most basic level of understanding, i.e. the natural perception of the work.

So, in this painting, what we identify are 13 men at the table during supper time. In this first level, we don’t use knowledge or in-depth cultural domains to understand the message.

The second level

Analysing art The girl with the pearl earringThe second level of understanding requires a certain iconographic knowledge, to the extent that this is the interpretation of the message and its meaning.

Thus, any individual who has had an education of western culture and/or Christianity will be able to identify the scene as the Last Supper that Jesus had with his Apostles.

The third and final level

For the third and final level of interpretation, the observer not only receives and interprets the message contained within the representation, but also seeks to interpret it under an historical point of view, looking for social and cultural interrelations that might broaden the meaning.

This level sees the art not only as isolated act, but as the product of historical, social and cultural conditions conducive to its creation.

So, the third level of knowledge requires a deeper knowledge and understanding, at a technical, historical and cultural level, in order to answer the last question: «what does it mean?».

Next, we will see a presentation with different example.

Learn more about art analysis and art history

Panofsky – Iconography as an area of study

 Iconography as an area of study emerges with the studies of art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), still in the 19th century.

He advocated that the story of the images is what teaches us their general function, thus being a mechanism of expression of the needs and expectations and a form of religious and political communication.

However, it’s only with Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) that Iconography truly becomes a study area.

Having been a student of Warburg in the University of Hamburg, Panofsky developed his own studies, having in mind the definition of Iconology.

In 1939, in his essay Studies in Iconology, Panofsky, as Warburg did before, spoke of reading the elements of a work of art beyond the simple formal description of said piece. In other words, he suggested that, before a work of art, we should not simply ask «what?», but also «why?».


  • Manuela Tenreiro
    03/09/2018 15:36

    Just one note, on the primary level it should read 13 individuals. “Men” is part of the next level since the viewer needs to have previous knowledge to identify all figures as men.

    • Fátima Muralha
      03/09/2018 16:48

      Thank you for your post. We want to stimulate debate and new information.

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