Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich (1909-2001) died ten years ago today, November 3, 2001. Along with Erwin Panofsky, Gombrich was one of the greatest exponents of iconography, the study of the meaning of didactic art. This post will mainly consist of quotes from the introductory chapter to his 1972 Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance. Excerpts will be included from each section of this chapter. One of his concluding points is particularly important for the soi disant iconographers of the online Tarot community:
Once more we see a confirmation of the methodological rule emphasized by Hirsch: interpretation proceeds by steps, and the first step on which everything else depends is the decision to which genre a given work is to be assigned. The history of interpretations is littered with failures due to one initial mistake. Once you take watermarks in sixteenth-century books to be the code of a secret sect, the reading of watermarks in the light of this hypothesis will appear to you possible or even easy.
Genre is crucial. More generally, Gombrich discusses the fact that art history and criticism has routinely dismissed meaning as irrelevant at best, degrading at worst. Traditionally, if a work of art has an obvious intended message, that lowers the regard most critics and historians will express for it. Focusing on the meaning reduces the art to illustration, unworthy of the attention of scholars and aesthetes. However, ignoring the didactic content is anachronistic. The concerns of the cultures in which pre-Modern art was conceived, created, and appreciated were primarily the meaning of a work—the primary justification for art's existence.
The concluding chapter of Symbolic Images, after which the book itself is named, is Icones Symbolicae. (An earlier version of the essay was published in 1948.) In that chapter, Gombrich analyzes different philosophies of symbolism in art. One of these is expressed by Abbé Pluche.
Understand a painting? It is ridiculous
that an effort should have to be made.
But the artist should realize from the failure of his allegories how little the public demands this sort of thing. Who gives himself the trouble to read, in the allegorical paintings of M. LeBrun and many others, what the artists have intended to make known? All these enigmatic figures make a burden of what ought to amuse or instruct me... Since the sole purpose of a painting is to show me what cannot be said in words, it is ridiculous that an effort should have to be made in order to understand it.... And ordinarily, when I have succeeded in divining what these mysterious figures mean, I find that the substance has hardly been worth so elaborate a concealment.
Abbé (Noël-Antoine) Pluche, Histoire du Ciel, 1739.(1)
The 18th-century view of Abbé Pluche is that “the sole purpose of a painting is to show me what cannot be said in words”. Compare that with the Gregorian(2) notion of paintings as quasi libri laicorum, that images were books for the masses. This was a commonplace among the people who produced and viewed pre-modern art. Both Gregory and Pluche were emphatic about the sole reason for pictorial representation, but their ideas were diametrically opposed, and other views existed as well. In the Preface, Gombrich explains this central problem, the focus of the book.
The nineteenth century regarded the Renaissance as a movement of liberation from the monkish dogmatism of the Middle Ages, expressing its new-found enjoyment of sensuous pleasure in the artistic celebration of physical beauty. Some of the greatest historians of Renaissance painting such as Berenson and Wölfflin still stood under the spell of this interpretation, which dismissed all concern with symbolism as irrelevant pedantry. One of the first scholars to react fiercely against this aestheticism of the fin de siècle was Aby Warburg, the founder of the Warburg Institute, with which I have been connected for most of my scholarly life. In his intellectual biography, which I have recently published, I have shown how painfully even he had to emancipate himself from this unhistorical view to make us aware of the importance which patrons and artists of the period attached to types of subject matter which can no longer be explained without drawing on forgotten esoteric lore(3).
The rest of the quotes will be from the Introduction: Aims and Limits of Iconology.
(Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts
1. The Elusiveness of Meaning
It is the essence of wit to exploit such accidents and to discover meanings where none were intended. But does it matter? Is it really with the intention that the iconologist is primary concerned? It has become somewhat fashionable to deny this, all the more since the discovery of the unconscious and of its role in art seems to have undermined the straightforward notion of intention. But I would contend that neither the Courts of Law nor the Courts of Criticism could continue to function if we really let go of the notion of an intended meaning.
Luckily this case has already been argued very ably in a book concerned with literary criticism, D. E. Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation. The main purpose of that astringent book is precisely to reinstate and justify the old common-sense view that a work means what its author intended it to mean, and that it is this intention which the interpreter must try his best to establish. To allow for this restriction of the term meaning Hirsch proposes to introduce two other terms the interpreter may want to use in certain contexts, the terms significance and implication.... Hirsch rejects the facile view that a work means what it means to us. The meaning was the intended one.... [The choice of subject] may also be said to have had implications which account both for its meaning and its subsequent change of significance. But while the interpretation of meaning can result in a simple statement... the question of implication is always open.... Here as always it is clear that the meaning we seek is the one [the artist] intended to convey.
Dealing, as he does, with literature rather than art, Hirsch comes to the conclusion that the intended meaning of a work can only be established once we have decided what category or genre of literature the work in question was intended to belong to. Unless we try to establish first whether a given literary work was intended as a serious tragedy or as a parody, our interpretation is likely to go very wrong indeed. This insistence on the importance of such a first step may at first look puzzling, but Hirsch shows convincingly how hard it is for the interpreter to retrace his steps once he has taken such a false turning. People have been known to laugh at tragedies if they took them to be parodies.
2. Iconography and Iconology
The historian will always do well to proceed from the known to the unknown.... Moreover, the methodological principles established by Hirsch, particularly the primacy of genres -- if it may so be called -- applies to the art of the Renaissance with even greater stringency than it does to the nineteenth century. Without the existence of such genres in the traditions of Western art the task of the iconologist would indeed be desperate.... It is because there are genres such as altar paintings and repertoires such as legends, mythologies, or allegorical compositions, that the identification of subject matters is at all possible. And here, as in literature, an initial mistake in the category to which the work belongs or, worse still, of possible categories, will lead the most ingenious interpreter astray.
The identification of texts illustrated in a given religious or secular picture is usually considered part of iconography.... If a complex illustration can be matched by a text which accounts for all its principal features the iconographer can be said to have made his case.If there is a whole sequence of such illustrations which fits a similar sequence in a text the possibility of the fit being due to accident is very remote indeed.
But by and large we mean by iconology, since the pioneer studies of Panofsky, the reconstruction of a programme rather than the identification of a particular text. The procedure need only be explained to show both its interest and its hazards. There is a number of images or cycles of art of the Italian Renaissance which cannot be explained as the straightforward illustration of a given existing text. We know moreover that patrons occasionally either invented subjects to be represented or, more often, enlisted the aid of some learned man to supply the artist with what we call a 'programme'. Whether or not this habit was frequent, particularly in the fifteenth century, as modern studies appear to suggest, it is hard to say; but examples of this kind of 'libretto' have certainly come down to us in great numbers from the second half of the sixteenth century onward. If these programmes in their turn had consisted of original inventions or fantasies the task of reconstructing such a lost text from a picture would again be pretty hopeless. But this is not so. The genre of programmes was based on certain conventions, conventions closely rooted in the respect of the Renaissance for the canonic texts of religion and of antiquity. It is from a knowledge of these texts and a knowledge of the picture that the iconologist proceeds to build a bridge from both sides to close the gap between the image and the subject matter.
3. The Theory of Decorum
Luckily Renaissance authors have not been totally silent on the principles by which these subjects were to be used in given contexts. They obviously relied on the dominant consideration of the whole classical tradition, the notion of decorum. The application of this term was larger in the past than it is now. It signified what was 'fitting'. There is fitting behaviour in given circumstances, a fitting style of speech for given occasions, and of course also fitting subjects for given contexts.
Lomazzo in the Sixth Book of his Trattato has a list of suggestions for various types of places, starting, strangely enough, with such places as cemeteries where a number of episodes from the Bible relating to death are mentioned.... [Examples for other places, including history and mythology.] These and similar stories were clearly filed in the minds of Renaissance people in such a way that they could easily name, say, Biblical stories involving fire, or Ovidian stories involving water....
What these examples suggest, then, is a simply principle of selection which is easy to discern. We may call it the principle of intersection -- having in mind the use of letters and numbers arranged on the sides of a chequerboard or map which are used conjointly to plat a particular square or area. The Renaissance artist or artistic advisor had in his mind a number of such maps, listing, say, Ovidian stories on one side and typical tasks on the other. Just as the letter B on such a map does not indicate one field but a zone which is only narrowed down by consulting the number, so the story of Icarus, for instance, does not have one meaning but a whole range of meaning, which in its turn is then determined by the context....
Not that the intersection of two such requirements would necessarily satisfy the demand of the Renaissance patron for the most fitting image.... There were other requirements to be considered, not least among them the predilections and aptitudes of the artists concerned.... The repertory from which to choose was so rich and varied that the final choice could easily be adapted to the demands of decorum and the preferences of the artist.
4. The Dictionary Fallacy
The programme [an extended example in the previous section] confirms what has been suggested here from the outset, that taken in isolation and cut loose from the context in which they are embedded none of these images could have been interpreted correctly. Not that this observation is surprising. After all, it is even true of the words of an inscription that they only acquire meaning within the structure of a sentence.... It is true that those who learn a language are under the illusion that 'the meaning' of any word can be found in a dictionary. They rarely notice that even here there applies what I have called the principle of intersection. They are offered a large variety of possible meanings and select from them the one that seems demanded by the meaning of the surrounding text....
What the study of images in known contexts suggests is only that this multiplicity of meaning is even more relevant to the study of symbols that it is to the business of everyday language. It is this crucial fact that is sometimes obscured by the way iconologists have tended to present their interpretations. Quite naturally the documentation provided in their texts and footnotes gives chapter and verse for the meaning a given symbol can have -- the meaning that supports their interpretation. Here, as with language, the impression has grown up among the unwary that symbols are a kind of code with a one-to-one relationship between sign and significance. The impression is reinforced by the knowledge that there exist a number of medieval and Renaissance texts which are devoted to the interpretation of symbols and are sometimes quoted dictionary-fashion.
The most frequently consulted of these dictionaries is Cesare Ripa's Iconologia of 1593.... It turns out, in fact, that the same 'principle of intersection' that has been postulated of programmes such as Caro's applies to Ripa's technique of symbolization....
Ripa establishes quite explicitly that the symbols he uses as attributes are illustrated metaphors. Metaphors are not reversible. The hare and the sparrow may be used in some context for their association with solitude, but they have other qualities as well, and the hare, for instance, can also be associated with cowardice. Ripa was also quite clear in his mind that the method only worked if it was aided by language. "Unless we know the names it is impossible to penetrate to the knowledge of the significance, except in the case of trivial images which usage has made generally recognizable to everybody."
5. Philosophies of Symbolism
It is to this problem that the major essay in this volume [the concluding section of Symbolic Images] is devoted. In Icones Symbolicae two such traditions are distinguished, but neither of them treats the symbol as a conventional code. What I have called the Aristotelian tradition to which both Caro and Ripa belong is in fact based on the theory of the metaphor and aims, with its aid, to arrive at what might be called a method of visual definition. We learn about solitude by studying its associations. The other tradition, which I have called the Neo-Platonic or mystical interpretation of symbolism, is even more radically opposed to the idea of a conventional sign language. For in this tradition the meaning of a sign is not something derived from agreement, it is hidden there for those who know how to seek. In this conception, which ultimately derives from religion rather than from human communication, the symbol is seen as the mysterious language of the divine. The augur interpreting a portent, the mystagogue explaining the divinely ordained ritual, the priest expounding the image in the temple, the Jewish or Christian teacher pondering the meaning of the word of God had this, at least, in common, that they thought of the symbol as of a mystery that could only partly be fathomed.
This conception of the language of the divine is elaborated in the tradition of Biblical exegetics. Its most rational exposition is to be found in a famous passage from St. Thomas.Any truth can be manifested in two ways: by things or by words. Words signify things and one thing can signify another. The Creator of things, however, can not only signify anything by words, but can also make one thing signify another. That is why the Scriptures contain a twofold truth. One lies in the things meant by the words used -- that is the literal sense. The other in the way things become figures of other things, and in this consists the spiritual sense.
But St. Thomas warns us not to take this technique as a method of translating unambiguous signs into discursive speech. There is no authoritative dictionary of the significance of things, as distinct from words, and in his view there cannot be such a dictionary:It is not due to deficient authority that no compelling argument can be derived from the spiritual sense, this lies rather in the nature of similitude in which the spiritual sense is founded. For one thing may have a similitude to many; for which reason it is impossible to proceed from any thing mentioned in the Scriptures to an unambiguous meaning. For instance the lion may mean the Lord because of one similitude and the Devil because of another.St. Thomas, as will be perceived, again links this lack of a definite meaning of 'things' with the doctrine of metaphor.... Each such symbol exhibits what may be called a plenitude of meanings which meditation and study can never reveal more than partially....
Nobody who has looked into medieval and Renaissance texts concerned with symbolism can fail to be both impressed and depressed by the learning and ingenuity expended on this task of applying the techniques of exegetics to a vast range of texts, images, or events. The temptation is indeed great for the iconologist to emulate this technique and to apply it in his turn to the works of art of the past.
6. Levels of Meaning?
But before we yield to this temptation we should at least pause and ask ourselves to what extent it may be appropriate to the task of interpreting the pictures or images of the past. Granted that any of these images could be seen to carry all kinds of implications -- to allude to Hirsch's use of the terms -- were they intended to carry more than one meaning? Were they intended, as is sometimes postulated, to exhibit the distinct four senses which exegetics attributed to the Holy Writ and which none other than Dante wished applied to the reading of his poem? I know of no medieval or Renaissance text which applies this doctrine to works of pictorial art....
The possibility of making 'things' signify was not lost on such masters as Leonardo, who represented the Christchild playing with a yarnwinder recalling the shape of the cross. But to what extent are these and similar examples applications of the principle of several meanings? The event is illustrated and the things figuring in the event echo and expand the meaning. But this symbolism can only function in support of what I have proposed to call the dominant meaning, the intended or principal purpose of the picture.... Here as always the symbol functions as a metaphor which only acquires its specific meaning in a given context. The picture has not several meanings but one.
7. The Psychoanalytic Approach
The discoveries of psycho-analysis have certainly contributed to the habit of finding so many 'levels of meaning' in any given work. But this approach tends to confuse cause and purpose. Any human action, including the painting of a picture, will be the resultant of many, indeed an infinite number of contributory causes. Psychoanalysis likes to speak in this context of 'over-determination' and the concept has its value as a reminder of the many motivations that may overlap in the motivation of anything we say, do, or dream. But strictly speaking any event that occurs is 'over-determined' if we care to look for all the chains of causation, all the laws of nature that come into operation.... What would matter in any of these cases is only that the innumerable chains of causation which ultimately brought the work into being must on no account be confused with its meaning. The iconologist is concerned with the latter, as far as it can be determined... We are rather concerned with categories of social acceptance, as is the case with all symbols and sign systems. It is these which matter to the iconologist, whatever penumbra of vagueness they may of necessity exhibit.
In looking at a work of art we will always project some additional significance that is not actually given. Indeed we must do so if the work is to come to life for us. The penumbra of vagueness, the 'openness' of the symbol is an important constituent of any real work of art.... But the historian should also retain his humility in the face of evidence. He should realize the impossibility of ever drawing an exact line between the elements which signify and those which do not. Art is always open to afterthoughts, and if they happen to fit we can never tell how far they were part of its original intention.
8. Codes and Allusions
Vasari tells us that Vincenzio da San Gimignano carried out a facade painting after a design by Raphael, showing the Cyclops forging a thunderbolt of Jove, and Vulcan at work on the arrows of Cupid. These, we read, were intended as allusions to the name of the owner of the house in the Borgo in Rome which these paintings adorned, on Battiferro, meaning hitting iron. If the story is true the subject was chosen as what is called in heraldry a 'canting device'. The story of such allusions should be quite salutary reading for the iconologist, for we must admit again that we could never have guessed.
[Another example from Vasari, with a topical allegory.]
It is characteristic, though, that this recourse to a code was taken in the context of a festive decoration, which would be taken down immediately. Secret codes and allusions of this kind have much less place i works of art intended to remain permanent fixtures. Codes, moreover, cannot be cracked by ingenuity alone. On the contrary. It is the danger of the cipher clerk that he sees codes everywhere.
To my knowledge neither Vasari nor any other text of the fifteenth or sixteenth century ever says that any painting or sculpture is intended to have two divergent meanings or to represent two distinct events through the same set of figures. The absence of such evidence seems to me to weigh all the more heavily as Vasari was obviously very fond of such intricacies both in his own art and in the inventions of his scholar-friends. It is indeed hard to imagine what purpose such a double image should serve within the context of a given cycle or decoration. The exercise of wit, so relished by the Renaissance, lay precisely in the assignment of a meaning to an image which could be seen to function in an unexpected light.
9. The Genres
We come back to the question of decorum and the institutional function of images in our period. For the exposition of ambiguity, the demonstration of plenitude had indeed a place in Renaissance culture, but it belonged to that peculiar branch of symbolism, the impressa. The combination of an image with a motto chosen by a member of the Nobility was not often witty but more frequently the cause of wit in others....
But if the iconologist must pay attention to the technique of the impressa and its applications, he should not forget to attend to the other end of the spectrum of Renaissance art, the free play of form and the grotesque which could equally be fitted into the theory of decorum.... The enigmatic configuration, the monsters and hybrids of the grotesque, are professedly the product of an irresponsible imagination on holiday. Take any of these images in isolation and place it in a conspicuous place in a solemn building and everyone would be entitled to look for a deep symbolic significance. The grotesque would become a hieroglyph, asking to be unriddled.
Once more we see a confirmation of the methodological rule emphasized by Hirsch: interpretation proceeds by steps, and the first step on which everything else depends is the decision to which genre a given work is to be assigned. The history of interpretations is littered with failures due to one initial mistake. Once you take watermarks in sixteenth-century books to be the code of a secret sect the reading of watermarks in the light of this hypothesis will appear to you possible or even easy....
One methodological rule, at any rate, should stand out in this game of unriddling the mysteries of the past. However daring we may be in our conjectures -- and who would want to restrain the bold? -- no such conjectures should ever be used as a stepping stone for yet another, still bolder hypothesis. We should always ask the iconologist to return to base from every one of his individual flights, and to tell us whether programmes of the kind he has enjoyed reconstructing can be documented from primary sources or only from the works of his fellow iconologists. Otherwise we are in danger of building up a mythical mode of symbolism, much as the Renaissance built up a fictitious science of hieroglyphics that was based on a fundamental misconception of the nature of the Egyptian script.
This redaction of the introductory chapter to a single book is, of course, inadequate. The point is to suggest the value of reading the whole chapter, the entire book, other works by Gombrich, as well as Panofsky, et al.
- 1. Gombrich cites Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, for the quote, and I have reproduced the longer quote from page 273 of that book.
- 2. Pope Gregory, in a letter to Bishop Serenus of Marseille in 600, chastised the iconoclastic Serenus with this rationale: “For what writing is to those who can read, a painting presents to the uneducated (idiotis) who look at it, since in it the unlearned (ignorantes) see what they ought to follow, and in it those who know no letters can read. Hence, painting serves as reading, especially for the people (gentibus).” Didactic illustration, (pro lectione pictura est), was the predominant use of and justification for images prior to the 19th century.
- 3. A number of dim-witted loons are likely to read posts on a Tarot blog. Therefore, it seems useful to point out the obvious: “forgotten esoteric lore” in this context includes subjects like biblical stories, the Golden Legend, classical mythology, medieval romances, and the like, in addition to the Neoplatonic sources, astrology, and other areas of Renaissance culture which have been co-opted by modern occultists. Forgotten esoteric lore is synonymous with “shit that is obscure to modern audiences”.
- Portrait of Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich by Ronald Brooks Kitaj at the National Portrait Gallery site.