African Images Essays In African Iconology

Written by Nicholle Lamartina Palacios~

 “Panofsky’s essays and many other scholarly essays on iconography have been limited to examining only the iconography of European art.”

Erwin Panofsky’s essay, An Introduction to Iconography and Iconology, has been highly influential in the study of iconography and has been an essential building block for many interpretations. However, Panofsky’s essays and many other scholarly essays on iconography have been limited to examining only the iconography of European art. Panofsky limits the use of his own methods through his title: “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the Study of Renaissance Art.Others, however, expand on Panofky’s ideas and use them in interpretations of non-Renaissance art, such as Dale Kinney in his interpretation of the Medieval Apse Mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere. In this essay I would like to interpret the Yale University Art Gallery’s Buddhapada (ca. 2nd century CE), a Buddhist sculpture from the ancient South Asian Gandhara, through the lens of Panofsky’s “three levels of meaning in representational imagery, and three stages of decipherment” [1] in order to examine their practicality in non-Western art.

Panofsky defines iconography as a study that “concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form.” However, the first stage in deciphering iconographic meaning is identifying primary or natural subject matter, which is done through identifying pure forms. A description based on these forms in the context of Buddhapada (shown in the image above) involves a discussion of the large foot-prints that cover most of the grey schist block the sculpture is created on. Other formal elements include the two women dressed in feathered headdresses, the lotus flowers spread out throughout the artwork, and the cross-like shapes chiseled into the toes.

The next step is realizing secondary or conventional subject matter, in which the formal elements are analyzed for their symbolic meanings. The identification of these images is what Panofsky calls “iconography.” Panofsky states that it is important to note that in this phase of interpretation much of what is identified will depend on our subjectivity and personal experience; this is why a historical understanding of the symbols is needed. Though before studying Buddhist iconography I could not understand Buddhapada beyond its formal qualities, after studying the historical meanings behind certain Buddhist images, my whole reading of the piece changed. In my post-study analysis I could decipher the images on a much deeper level. I came to realize that the two enormous foot-prints at the center symbolize Buddha and his extreme spiritual supremacy that has led to his surpassing of a full physical body. The two women at the sides are yakshas, nature spirits, that pray to the image of Buddha and therefore serve as symbols of proper religious devotion. The lotus flowers represent nature and balance, and are circumscribed by circular engravings that bring to mind the Buddhist wheel (Dharmachakra) that symbolizes the teachings of Buddha, and the cross signs are important figures that represent Indian peace signs.

The third stage of decipherment is “iconology” – “ascertaining… underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion.” An example of this would be noting the historical importance of the use of the large foot-prints as the primary portrayal of Buddha in Buddhapada, rather than an anthropomorphic representation. This is of cultural and religious significance because it reveals the trend of using aniconic images in Buddhist art during the time period this piece was created, a trend that favored the use of symbols to refer to the Buddha and often abstained from representing his full humanly form.

Though it has been argued that there should be a reconsideration of Panofsky’s concept[2] of iconography, it does serve as a good guide to understanding works from different perspectives. It also encourages using artworks as documents that are part of a larger cultural context. As noted in the interpretation of Buddhapada, the concept of iconography be used in the analysis of non-Western art as well as European art.

[1]   Dale Kinney, The Apse Mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Pg 22
[2]   Keith Moxey, The Politics of Iconology, Pg 1

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