Monday 24 May 2010

Erwin Panofsky’s Iconology on Andrea Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

I found the following is an example of how to analyse an image using Erwin Panofsky’s Iconology very useful.  I am employing this method to analyse my images in my essay.


Level 1

Subject Matter—Description. A description of the work in terms of the generic elements of the image or images depicted in, on, or by it.


Level 2

Subject Matter—Identification. The name of the subject depicted in or on a work of art: its iconography. Iconography is the named mythological, fictional, religious, or historical narrative subject matter of a work of art, or its non-narrative content in the form of persons, places, or things.


Level 3

Subject Matter—Interpretation. The meaning or theme represented by the subject matter or iconography of a work of art.


A generic description of the painting would point out the elements recognizable to any viewer, regardless of his or her level of expertise or knowledge:

"a woman holding a baby, with a man located behind her, and three men located in front of her."

Possible indexing terms to describe the scene could be

"woman," "baby," "men," "vessels," "porcelain vessel," "coins," "metal vessel," "costumes," "turbans," "hats," "drapery," "fur," "brocade," "haloes."


The next level of subject analysis is identification, which is often the only level of access cataloguing institutions routinely provide. The painting depicts a known iconographic subject that is recognizable to someone familiar with the tradition of Western art history: "Adoration of the Magi." The iconography is based on the story recounted in the New Testament (Matthew 2), with embellishments from other sources. The proper names of the protagonists are Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar, Mary, Jesus, and Joseph; these names should also be listed as part of the identifiable subject.


The third level of subject analysis is interpretation, where the symbolic meaning of the iconography is discussed.

For example, the Magi represent the Three Ages of Man (Youth, Middle Age, Old Age), the Three Races of Man, and the Three Parts of the World (as known in the fifteenth century: Europe, Africa, Asia). The gifts of the Magi are symbolic of Christ's kingship (gold), divinity (frankincense), and death (myrrh, an embalming spice). The older Magus kneels and has removed his crown, representing the divine child's supremacy over earthly royalty. The journey of the Magi symbolizes conversion to Christianity. Details related to the subject, as depicted specifically in this painting, could include Mantegna's composition of figures and objects, all compressed within a shallow space in imitation of ancient Roman reliefs.