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 …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.