• Email
  • Print

The Language of the Dead

Tomb Sculpture

by Erwin Panofsky, edited by H.W. Janson
Abrams, 319 pp., $20.00

These four lectures—a “little series” Panofsky modestly calls them—were not intended for publication when they were given in 1956, but they have been made an occasion for printing, with 471 lavish black-and-white illustrations, one of his most meditative examinations of the contradictions inherent in art-forms. The topic could be desolating, but Panofsky has approached it with Olympian equanimity, remarking on at least one occasion that he was taking full advantage of still being outside his subject.

He is really using the funerary sculpture of four cultures—Egyptian, GrecoRoman, Early-Christian-Medieval, and Renaissance—to suggest that the relation of art to life is revealed whenever man faces the ultimate demand life makes upon art: to memorialize the necessity of his crossing the extreme horizon of his existence, death. The lectures therefore have overtones of the crisis of being and nothingness. Panofsky closes with an analysis of the iconology of Bernini’s tomb for Pope Alexander VII, where the figure of death, rising from the vault, “signifies not only the power that ends life, but also the power that reveals truth.” Here is a moment when the “law of inconsistency,” which is the law of man’s existence, operates at full force, and funerary sculpture has always received a potent stimulus from our fear of death.

In accord with this law of inconsistency, tomb sculptures are records of the artistic problem that has occupied Panofsky throughout many of his formidable studies in iconology: he has called it disjunction, a term he devised with Fritz Saxl to indicate how certain traditional images and forms are continually adapted to express meanings they did not originally have. In these lectures he employs the word pseudomorphosis to designate the illogicality whereby a certain image morphologically analogous to another image is entirely unrelated to it genetically. An example is the Punic or Medieval tomb-figure lying horizontally as if deceased with a pillow under its head, but posed as if it were standing and alive, or even gesticulating. Behind this formal contradiction is the great human paradox that we desire repose, but not, says Panofsky, a repose so complete that it extinguishes consciousness and identity. The complications and inconsistencies, formally and psychologically, are more intricate in the high Middle Ages in doubledecker tombs where the grisly figure of the worm-eaten corpse (en transi) is simultaneously represented with the figure au vif (eyes open, limbs animated, perhaps legs crossed) or the figure sinking into death (eyes closing, limbs relaxing) or the figure de la mort, calmly at peace, eyes gently closed, features composed into rest. In the process of resolving these formal contradictions the medieval sculptor gradually works his way toward the activated effigies of the Renaissance, achieving the third dimension during the “resurgence” of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

On the basis of Panofsky’s evidence one could sketch the changing beliefs of successive cultures by means of funerary images. The Egyptians, for example, convinced of the survival of the entire personality, but without the body, prevailingly held a prospective view, at least in their attitude toward the aristocratic classes. Their tombs indicate that kings and nobles were expected to continue their worldly life, since they were provided with all the necessaries for a kind of survival that was “spatial” rather than temporal. In other words, the Egyptian did not understand the meaning of time as it was later, and gradually, understood by Greeks and Romans, who had an attitude which Panofsky happily calls retrospective or commemorative. The appearance of retrospective, elegiac funerary sculpture betokens a shift in the view of life itself, which is now filled with gentle, somber, and humane resignations we do not find in Egyptian art. In due course, time becomes a major psychological and philosophical problem for the Greeks, and with this new sense of the pathos of the lived past there comes a meditative feeling for the preciousness of life on earth so reluctantly surrendered by Achilles, whose shade speaks to Odysseus from the Cimmerian land. And in Rome the pathos of time is magnified into a majestic awareness of history, as well as being touched with very complex and universal intimations of piety and yearning for some future existence.

The shift is even more suggestive than Panofsky chooses to claim, for the commemorative and retrospective view embodied in the heroic, quiescent Greek funerary stele is an optical symbol for the tragic sense of life in Aeschylus and Sophocles. Tragedy has always required a kind of anachronism, and it has recently been proposed that the action in a Shakespearian tragedy is seen from the protagonist’s standpoint after disaster has befallen him. The same anachronism would hold in that great Aeschylean play The Persians, where the full irony is made available by an intrinsically retrospective position: Aeschylus and his Athenian audience and the Persian Queen Atossa with the chorus of Persian elders are all by implication situated at a time after the battles of Salamis and Plataea, and the action takes its overwhelming ironic and moral meanings from the fact that there an assumed retrospective vision—like that vision Oedipus has of himself when he appears, blinded, after learning the truth, which is seen as destined after all. The backward tragic view is rephrased in Othello’s final judgment on his own error, or in Macbeth’s bitter recollection of his nameless acts. We say that Western humanism culminates in a tragic view of life, and this tragic view is emerging in the beautifully resigned and commemorative stele of Chairedemos and Lyceas. Indeed, tragedy is a mode of commemoration, and funereal in the sense that these Attic steles dignify the dead rather than providing for them.

The waning of this tragic view comes with the prospective vision of the Early-Christian era, which produces a funerary art signifying deliverance from death, sin, and misery. With his usual finesse Panofsky remarks upon the conflicting meanings of time implied in the formula, “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.” The adjective aeternus connotes timelessness and rest, perpetuus, a notion of movement in time, and the incompatibles on Early-Christian sarcophagi involved not time alone but the Christian content that “slipped, so to speak, into the skin of pagan form.” These radical incompatibles were bequeathed to the Middle Ages, which coped with them in tomb-figures au vif, de la mort, en trans, and in figures on the lit de parade, who eventually reanimate themselves into a new “presence” during the Renaissance, first kneeling, then becoming intensely alive in equestrian statues entirely detached from the tomb and mounted in the piazza in all their energy and sprezzatura. Yet again the law of disjunction prevails—for Donatello exalts his princely Gattamelata upon a base that is still a tomb.

This image embodies the confusions underlying Renaissance humanism, and Panofsky is seldom more profound than when he speaks of the equivocal motives and forms behind the Renaissance “decompartmentalization” of culture, producing an aesthetic spectacle that too often conceals a “chaotic fusion of art, religion, scholarship, science, and technology”—a disorder that can be traced back to the contradictions within the medieval tomb, oriented as it was toward both the next world and this. The Renaissance “image in majesty” signifies a recovered humanism, and a secularism; but sometimes the new triumph of personality is vulgarized into effigies that look merely smug and have an air of facing eternity with the “moderate wakefulness” of the socially eligible.

The law of disjunction or pseudomorphosis, running like an obbligato through this work and his others, can be taken as Panofsky’s own way of treating the artistic situation that literary critics have called irony or paradox. Poetry, we have been instructed to think, is poetic so far as it has within it tensions of tone or language that produce ambiguity. Panofsky’s several studies of perspective and iconology have centered, over the years, in a recurring scrutiny of such ambiguities—the dissociation of forms from meanings or the equivocal significance of artistic images whose denotations diverge from their connotations. This is a continuing mode of irony in artforms: there is a disjunction between what is phrased and what is intended or conveyed. For instance, Pollaiuolo’s tomb for Pope Sixtus IV presents the figure of a pagan nude Diana in the guise of the figure of Theology. Here we see more than a sculptural witticism, though it may be read as that also. The often unconscious double meanings amount to classic irony or, in the formula of literary critics, a language of paradox.

It is a language the sculptor often spoke when he was called upon to take part in a ritual so primitive that logic yielded to magic and to the inconsistencies in man’s attitude toward the dead, toward his own death, and in the creative act itself. After the Renaissance, however, we mostly have only the complacencies of the Albert Memorial and the magic of the mortician, who leads us at last to the glories of Forest Lawn.

  • Email
  • Print