Erwin Panofsky’s Iconological Method

I’ve decided to do a bit of visual culture reading to try and broaden my understanding of semiotics and images. I purchased a copy of Howells and Negreiros Visual Culture and have just completed the first chapter which is about iconology. Iconology deals with the process of analysing an image, but it goes a little further than what I originally thought.

According to Erwin Panofsky there are three levels of analysing an image and I have done up a flow chart to indicate this.

Erwin Panofsky's Iconological Method
Erwin Panofsky’s Iconological Method

On the first level, when we first look at an image we look to extract factual and expressive information. Panofsky calls this level the primary or natural level. This is where we gather the the information of what we see (denotation) and glean any emotion that is depicted from what we initially see. He calls this the “what you see is what you get” stage. We do not need any particular insight to figure out what is happening in the image.

The second level, also known as the secondary or conventional level, is where iconology begins. It is where we start to draw inferences (connotation). At this stage we need to understand what the conventions mean in the image. This is where we bring our existing literary, cultural or artistic knowledge to the forefront. For example, we are able to discern an image of the virgin Mary with baby Jesus and not confuse it with an image of a woman and her child.

At the third stage, the intrinsic meaning or content level, is where the deep penetration takes place. At this level we tap into philosophical and religious persuasions, cultures, class, society’s attitudes. According to Panofsky, this is the ultimate goal of iconology.


Howells, Richard and Negreiros, Joaquim (2012). Visual Culture. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity Press


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