Act of Interpretation

Pre-iconographical description (and pseudo-formal analysis)
lconographical analysis in the narrower sense of the word
lconographical interpretation in a deeper sense (iconographical synthesis)

Panofsky, Erwin (1939 / 1972). Studies in Iconology. Humanistic Themes In the Art of the Renaissance. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. S.15f.

The interpretation of the intrinsic meaning or content, dealing with what we have termed ‘symbolical‘ values instead of with images, stories and allegories, requires something more than a familiarity with specific themes or concepts as transmitted through literary sources. When we wish to get hold of those basic principles which underlie the choice and presentation of motifs, as well as the production and interpretation of images, stories and allegories, and which give meaning even to the formal arrangements and technical procedures employed, we cannot hope to find an individual text which would fit those basic principles as John xiii, 21ss. fits the iconography of the Last Supper. To grasp these principles we need a mental faculty comparable to that of a diagnostician,— a faculty which I cannot describe better than by the rather discredited term ‘synthetic intuition,‘ and which may be better developed in a talented layman than in an erudite scholar.
However, the more subjective and irrational this source of interpretation (for every intuitive approach will be conditioned by the interpreter’s psychology and ‘Weltanschauung’), the more necessary the application of those correctives and controls which proved indispensable where only an iconographical analysis in the narrower sense, or even a mere pre-iconographical description was concerned. When even our practical experience and our knowledge of literary sources may mislead us if indiscriminately applied to works of art, how much more dangerous would it be to trust our intuition pure and simple! Thus, as our practical experience had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions,
objects and events were expressed by forms (history of style); and as our knowledge of literary sources had to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, specific themes and concepts were expressed by objects and events (history of types); just so, or even more so, has our synthetic intuition to be controlled by an insight into the manner in which, under varying historical conditions, the general and essential tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts. This means what may be called a history of cultural symptoms—or ‘symbols’ in Ernst Cassirer’s sense — in general. The art-historian will have to check what he thinks is the intrinsic meaning of the work, or group of works, to which he devotes his attention, against what he thinks is the intrinsic meaning of as many other documents of civilization historically related to that work or group of works, as he can master: of documents bearing witness to the political, poetical, religious, philosophical, and social tendencies of the personality, period or country under investigation. Needless to say that, conversely, the historian of political life, poetry, religion, philosophy, and social situations should make an analogous use of works of art. It is in the search for intrinsic meanings or content that the various humanistic disciplines meet on a common plane instead of serving as handmaidens to each other.