The Surplus Value of Mythic in Iconography – and Style


The mythic as the Modalisierung of iconography

There might be ways to show how a phenomenon which can be called the mythic could be one of the most overlooked areas in the iconographical studies in art history. I have hardly come across studies which deal with the problem: the mythic as a surplus value of iconography in the art historical studies.

The way cultural anthropology has used to define the concept of myth has had little or almost nothing to do with the manner the myth has been defined in iconography as a part of art history. We can say that the mainstream iconography has abandoned the mythic from iconography just right from the beginning – and even today. Yet there must be some means to include the concept of mythic (in Ernst Cassirer “mythical thinking”) in the iconographical studies, as a point of view in its own right.

If there is finally a possibility to look iconography from the point of view of the mythic, the basic maxim could be: Not everything in mythic can be reduced to iconography in the normal sense, introduced by Erwin Panofsky and others after him. It also means: not everything in mythic has one-to-one semantic value between texts and images. On the other hand it could also mean: The so called “figurability” does not explain everything which is outside the normal semantic value.

Nevertheless the mythic can be seen as a modal force in the iconographical process. For example, the “artness” of art has been one of the main modal forces in aesthetic modernism. At a phenomenal level the thing I here call mythic means the signifying force of all kinds of belief-systems, from rumours to sacred and widely shared and self-evident conventions or convictions – habits which are not easily separated from the process of these belief-systems.

To presume mythic as a driving force in iconography – and especially in iconographic processes – means that it is a kind of low modal tone in the visual narrative or token. Any narrative can be reduced to some signifying orientation or a narrative force which have a decisive value for the atmosphere of the work. This means: mythic sets a basic tone for the pictorial tale. Mainly it concerns the reality value of a picture. Most likely we can say that the concept of mythic leads us to the “Modalisierung” of iconography.

There are many difficulties to study the mythic of a picture in a phenomenal level. Firstly: that which articulates the modal system does not look like a modal system. It shows up as real (need) or inevitable or the symbolic which looks like real. Secondly: How to describe a force which makes destiny in the picture seem as destiny?

Old and new definitions of myth – and mythic

When the study of the mythical thinking has been ignored in iconography and left totally to anthropologists, we can at least hope that, along with the interest in visual culture, it could some day come back. There have been some signs of the changes in attitude.

The modern definition of myth has turned out to be a classical one. It is a broad one and has been presented by Roland Barthes, as we know. It seems to be relevant even today, with certain modifications. More than a definition it is a presentation of a mechanism. According to Barthes the primary function of myth is to represent constructive or cultural meanings as natural. Therefore myths strive to naturalize cultural systems and values, make them seem self-evident. Myths deny the filter of representation and show the representative shortcut to “reality”. Therefore a myth cannot recognize its own narrative as a representation, as a cultural agreement –which has been, in accordance with the definition, made subconsciously.

In this way myths help us to divide the world into large categories of meaning – into categories larger than culture. It is just for that very reason myths can easily be seen finalities as such. Myth explains culture according to its fictive correlates which are “the hard codes” of nature. Myth is in fact the challenger of culture in nature’s costume. As Horatius used to say: ”Expell the nature with a pitchfork, it will anyway come back” (Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret).

Besides myth is a construction which tries to represent cultural narratives as natural, it presents itself as inevitable, unhistorical and unchanged. As Barthes states: “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature” (1970, 129). In myth, says Barthes, history evaporates. Therefore the task of culture is to guarantee the truthfulness of myth as a natural representation. This gives a myth the force of the truth. Therefore it is a story which is true because of its manifest natural origin.

We can continue our definitions: Myth is the instant way to confront the complex reality. Myth is a royal road which leads us to explain complex structures by simple origins. So, myth as a cultural construction has to refute its own quintessence as a construction. For Barthes the concept was the substitute for ideology – in good and bad.

Dominique Lecourt has asserted: “The myth tries to solve some basic riddles of mankind. Myth is about unsolved problems of the mankind” (1996). Rather the contrary happens: myths present and represent solved problems of mankind! Myth is not a riddle; it is a narrative model which shows how to manage with riddles in a “natural” way. Probably we have to modify Paul Ricoeur’s formula: “Myth makes us see” and say instead: myth makes us see the seen.

If myth is a narrative in which the universe of connotations produces a denotation-looking surface, then changing conventions establish appearances and finally the myth makes the world seem as denotation.

Claude Lévi-Strauss’ classical definition refers to the problem of the unconscious: “I claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men’s minds without their being aware of the fact”. Or: “Myths get thought in man unbeknownst to him” (1964, 20). For Lévi-Strauss the basic assumption for mythic activities is the “unconscious nature of collective phenomena”: moral justification or explanation for any custom is missing (1967, 19).

The place and the role of the unconscious is a problem. How myths can be unconsciously manifested? Anthropologists want to see that a myth is a kind of “lived-in-model”. We incorporate models the mechanism of which we don’t even ask. Lévi-Strauss’ idea that myth is a sign system, which is relatively independent from its content meets also some problems. For Lévi-Strauss the mechanism of myth can be represented as a formalistic or even rationalistic model (see: Deleuze 2004, 261-262).

One way to sense the formalistic view of Lévi-Strauss is totemism, the need to understand universe on the basis projected names of relatives in a broad sense. He tries to show how totemic practises are universal. Indeed, in many cases popularizing of the natural sciences gives us a new totem. I mean a totem in the sense that with the help of science we can finally define our relatives better. O-to–te-man means “he is my relative”. As you might know Lévi-Strauss saw astrology as a branch of modern totemism. The same goes, of course, for saints, guardian angels and spirits. (1973, 86, 131.)

We can say that for the 16th -century humanist, astrology gave a possibility to read the cipher, the secret code of the universe. Now Freudianism has given us possibilities which seem parallel to the astrology of the 16th century. But there is a difference: Freudianism has not replaced astrology in ordinary man’s or woman’s mind. Even to day the shortest way to know the world around comes either from astrology (too far) or from the so called knowledge of the functions of the brain: it is “there in the head” (too close). Totemic strategies really make a delay to understand complex meanings of our collective behaviour, be it familiar or not, visual or not.

We could even speak of totemic practices which can be a more specific term than the so called “cultural practices” – with all its imprecise impressions. Examples of recent totemic practices could easily be found in the apologies of new media technology. In this mythology after every new technological invention they say: “now everything has been changed”.

We can also look for the totemic practices in the field of art and find some new “kinship relations”. The mythic operates in the field of modern iconography, in the custom for searching “art-looking” objects. Indeed, art has long been a new indicator of the sacred – opening with its rituals a tearless way to artistic revelation or salvation. The ways to follow some accepted models seem to guarantee the realm of mythic also in art.


What Panofsky neglected in Cassirer?

Since early 1960s, starting from Otto Pächt (1961), Erwin Panofsky has been accused of the habit to understand iconography in a narrow sense, only as a practice to find a suitable text for the image studied. Even though this is true there still remain some problems not much discussed. We can say: despite the fact that an early iconographical research around Erwin Panofsky was interested in the concept of “symbolic forms” as a part of iconology, there seems to be a big discrepancy between some basic ideas of Ernst Cassirer and Panofsky.

Between the years 1923 and 1929 Cassirer published a book The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms in three volumes. The name of the second volume is “Mythical Thought” (Das Mythische Denken: Der Mythos als Denkform). In the second volume Cassirer emphasizes the autonomous nature of mythical consciousness and even warns against comparing myths with other “symbolic forms” – merely on the basis of content (1955 II, 35).

According to Cassirer mythical activity “strives for a ‘unity of the world’” (ibid. 62). This means that mythical thinking does not know certain distinctions (ibid. 36), and that a mythical representation cannot be differentiated from the object it refers. “The ‘image’ does not represent the ‘thing’; it is the ‘thing’” (ibid. 38). Mythical thinking sees identities: “Where we see mere ‘representation’, myth (–) sees real identity” (ibid.). Probably for this reason Cassirer sees that the mythical world is concrete: “because thing and signification are undifferentiated” (ibid. 24).

Cassirer reserved the concept of the “mythical” mainly for primitive people and wanted to separate higher thinking from mythical thinking because das Mythische does not shape the idea of universal causality (1955, 43). Myth distinguishes from “empirico-scientific knowledge because of its different modality” (ibid. 60) or by its “tonality” (ibid. 61).

There are some interesting passages in the III part of Cassirer’s work which also deal with the question of “the mythical consciousness”. Cassirer ponders upon some problems concerning two facets of the concept of representation. First, the “normal” case in representation: something stands for something; second, the representation of the god, for example, meaning: “in his wholly immediate presence”. Cassirer elucidates: ”The representation, as presence, is at the same time actualization: what stands before us here and now, what is given as this particular and determinate thing, announces itself also as the emanation and manifestation of a power which is not wholly exhausted in any such particularization” (1955 III, 108; accentuation AK). This means that Cassirer very clearly fixes his interest on the problem of what is affected by the presence in representation.

A curious thing is that Cassirer’s powerful concept “the mythical thinking” has confronted a total oblivion in the iconographical studies of art history. The traditional iconography was not interested in the belief system and the power of the figurative presentness. That Cassirer was inclined to place the “mythical thinking” mostly among so called primitive people, is only a part of the explanation.

Although Cassirer had good connections to the Warburg-institute in the early 1920s, he had no considerable influence on the art historical thinking of the institute as regards to the study of myths and mythical thinking. Only the general concept of the “symbolic forms” was widely known in art history through Erwin Panofsky. As far as I can see, Panofsky overlooked Cassirer’s concept das Mythische and left the concept of the mythical merely untouched in his theory of iconography.

In his famous introductory chapters (Studies in Iconology, 1939, Meaning in the Visual Arts, 1955), Panofsky´s intention was that under the concept of the “symbolic form”, several humanist disciplines could meet. After we have identified forms and expressional qualities of the picture, and after studying a conventional subject matter, we meet the level of “the intrinsic meaning” according to Panofsky’s famous scheme. It is the level of “symbolical values” which makes possible to study “essential tendencies of the human mind expressed by specific themes and concepts” “under varying historical conditions” (1962, 16).

In fact these “essential tendencies of human mind” escorted him unintentionally to the realm of mythic – and these tendencies, being unhistorical, really seem to be a mythic structure as such! Looking for universals and the want of naturalizing them is mythic action. Therefore Panofsky didn’t comprehend “symbolical values” as a mythic force.

Thus the basic question in iconography: could some images in history be powerful because of their pictorial mode, remains unanswered. It is evident that a myth for Panofsky has always been about severe semantics: the semantic meaning of a written text has to been found behind the picture’s subject matter – or behind the chain of some iconographical type. Therefore Panofsky couldn’t think that myth or mythic can also be a particular “symbolic form” he was searching for.

The concept of the unconscious which is very important for Lévi-Strauss’ view of mythical thinking, has a pitiful destiny in Panofsky’s oeuvre. If we compare the introductory chapter of the year 1939 to that of the 1955, we soon notice that they are fairly the same – except the word “unconsciously” has been dropped out of the 1955 edition. In 1939 he defines the intrinsic meaning as follows: “the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class (–) unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work” (1962, 7; cf. 1955, 30). It really seems that Panofsky’s symbolic forms have been turned out even more Apollonian after the Second World War because of the pressures of empiricism. This conscious disregard even sharpens Panofsky’s attitude: symbolic forms have no connection to unconscious mythic level. Yet unbeknownst of the change Lévi-Strauss writes about Panofsky in 1956: “If this author is a great structuralist, it is because he is first a great historian” (1994, 276).

In fact we can find the same disregard in M.A. Holly’s book Panofsky and the Foundation of Art History (1984). Holly only mentions the second volume of Cassirer’s II volume from the year 1925 (Das Mythische Denken), but does not draw any conclusions in regard to Panofsky’s view on iconology. Therefore he does not pay any attention to the missing connection between intrinsic meanings and the “unspoken” mythical (see Holly 1984, 159-174). Instead Holly rightly mentions Cassirer’s Mythische in connection to Panofsky’s early work Perspective as Symbolic Form (1927)[1]. In that book there are some references to Cassirer’s II volume, but only as far as the question of perception of space is of concern (cf. 1955, 83-84). The main message is anyway clear: perspective is a symbolic form (Panofsky 1997, 41) – of the apollonian kind.

Also Donald Kelly is silent of the concept of das Mythische in his article “Something Happened: Panofsky and the Cultural History” (1995). The reason probably is that the mythic as a force in culture does not belong to “the cultural history” – in an Apollonian world of iconography as Kulturgeschichte!

When dealing with Renaissance imagery Clark Hulse refers to the mythic dimension in Cassirer’s sense: “Cassirer was at times willing to believe that the symbolic forms of art can restore our contact with mythic consciousness” (1990, 77). But also Hulse is silent of Panofsky’s ignorance in this instance. He only states: “By way of contrast (–) Panofsky sought in his iconographical studies to uncover the historical conditions under which the rational structures of language could be welded to images” (ibid. 78). This was Panofsky’s “early attempt to define a historical semiotics of visual image (ibid). Really, the search for the text expelled broad semiotics, that of the myth in the cartography of Panofskyan iconography.

It really seems that iconography in art history has not confronted the possibility of modal (figurative) forces of iconography in pictorial practices. This is also the outcome of understanding semiotics in a narrow sense. Mythic instead, could be thought of as a second order semantic system in iconography, in ways which does not necessarily coincide with Panofsky’s view of iconology, either. It could be found by studying the dimensions of figurability or by elaborating Warburg’s views on Nachleben of certain Pathosformeln. Basically, at the time of Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955) Lévi-Strauss was really going into totally different direction, studying totemism.

There was no such a thing as mythic styling in Panofsky. The word ‘how?’ was left unanswered. Later Robert Klein really tried to see the other side of the iconography when he wrote (1963): “Underlying symbolism is more often linked with forms than with objects” (1979, 151). Klein was more interested in the power and the range of figurative metaphors than Panofsky.

When thinking of the functions of mythic we can discern two pictorial strategies: 1) The mythic: a true narrative which tries to represent and guarantee a real origin and a real truth. This means: widely shared (visual) beliefs and sign systems. 2) The modal practices of “the continuity of images”, which supposedly belong to the realm of the mythic, especially when Pathosformeln are in question.

Louis Marin has criticized the iconographical research which is totally dependent of a text behind the picture, the practice maintained, not only Panofsky but also others, like Edgar Wind (2001, 56-57). Marin’s answer to the problem of iconography is stress dimension of figurability of a picture and also the search for visual latencies in a picture, its infratexts – which will be open for those who have the capacity to look at pictures for hours as Freud had when gazing his eye to Moses of Michelangelo (ibid. 55).

Probably the dilemma of “beyond” has often been misunderstood in iconography. There is a text behind the picture, but behind the text there could be other – mythic – image, as well. Darian Leader has rightly maintained: “It’s not that we will find hidden (–) reality behind the symbols, but that this hidden reality is just more symbols” (2002, 81). And really, those symbols could be of myth-making quality. Symbols do not lessen when we find a hidden layer of meaning. It can just be attached to some myth – and with this knowledge of “more symbols” we have to look at the picture again.

In his early work Myth and Music (1978) Eero Tarasti clearly understood the modal power and the unconscious character of mythic. As for music Tarasti’s concept of the “mythical styles” is a significant tool to modalize mythic structures in music. Besides Lévi-Strauss and Cassirer Tarasti refers to Karl Jaspers’ theories. Tarasti introduces lots of different “mythical styles”, in which modal undercurrents (or semes) meet aesthetic preferences in a bold way (e.g. nature-mythical, hero-mythical, magical, sacred, demonic, fantastic, primitivistic, pastoral, national-musical, gestural (sic!) etc. (1978, 71-73, 86-129.) Therefore Tarasti’s parcours towards iconography of music has had an opposite direction than that of Panofsky’s: via mythic.

We can say that mythic is the belief-factor of a tale, be it visual, literary or musical. Signs try to increase their drive power by referring to the importance of the reference. In that way mythic could be defined as a low tone belief system in a discourse. It could also be an undercurrent of the scientific narrative or a strategy of emplotments of an art historical writing – as Hayden White proposes (1985, 66-69, 90-91). As White emphasizes: ”Each history has its own myth” (ibid. 127, 56-57). Especially styles make history (of art) as a coherent story.



Style as a special case of a mythic discourse

Period styles in the art history have curiously shown how mythic can be a part of the art historian’s narrative practice. They have gained a mythical supremacy in historical and art historical narratives. The function of a period style is in that that it will show the limits of a reality effect for each age. Certainly these reality effects are “big” signs. They are art history’s inadvertent modal force.

Period styles are like shared belief system which guarantees reality value of the narrative told. They strive to naturalize art in history. That is why styles have a surprising performative power in the art historical narrative.

Rosalind Krauss is a case in point. In the preface of her book The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernist Myths Krauss refers to the definition of a myth only briefly. Presenting the idea of a modernist grid in art she writes: “structuralists (–) wish to understand the function of myths; and this function they see as the cultural attempt to deal with contradiction” (1986, 13). Her example of the mythic thinking is a grid of a modernist picture. She states: “the grid has a mythic power” in modernism (ibid. 12). Krauss also speaks of the repressive power of the myth (ibid. 13). That is all about the mythic besides her title of the book.

We can really speak of mythic accents in modernism, accents which have assured the dominance of some powerful ideas. For example the mythic character of a concept of form in modernism which implied a natural power to the originality, an Aristotelian idea of form with its romantic tenets: As a form of a plant grows from inside, the same happens to the forms in a poet’s mind: they also grow from inside. The reference here, of course, was a mythical power of nature.

However myths do not finish with modernism. After referring to the “modernist myths”, Rosalind Krauss declares: ”We are now standing on the threshold of a postmodernist art, an art of a fully problematized view of the representation” (1986, 38). This is clearly the declaration of a new period which paradoxically promised to clear out the idea of period styles. Even postmodernism couldn’t avoid the style’s mythic, almost totemic, dimension.

First, periods seem to be inevitable tools not only to control, but also to articulate the chronological time. Really this particular articulation which cannot be easily perceived gives the hint of mythic reality. Second, style is also a curious end: it opens the other world. We are satisfied when we know that Bernini belonged to Baroque.

In the 1940s Karl Löwith declared that it was Jacob Burkhardt who finally liberated “the idea of history” from myth and saw ”things as they are” (White 1973, 233). The idea to liberate history from myths belonged without doubt to the mythical thinking with its urge to naturalize history.

Some examples try to show conditions in which we just can’t help using the concept of style. Philip Sohm states: “Style reduces nature to art” (2000, 93). The mythic clearly shows up here. “Style mutates into its opposite, turning against the artist’s best intentions”, Sohm continues (ibid. 85). Styles are concrete and self-evident – and yet abstract and irresolvable.

John Elkins has stated in his Stories f Art: “But style is insidious, and I have not yet seen any texts that dispose of the traditional period or style names or manage not to depend on style” (2002, 128). Fredric Jameson refers the same thing by saying: ”we can’t stop us making periodizations” (1994, 29). Hans Belting has stated: “Artistic styles became visual projections of styles of living or thinking” (1987, 16; cf. 4-5).

H. Gombrich is a telling case. We know his passion for criticizing Hegelian tradition of period styles. Gombrich writes (1991): “Romantic historiography, as I see it, is full of such mythological entities as Zeitgeist, the Volksgeist, the process of production and the mechanism of biological evolution which are supposed to explain the historical destiny of cultures” (1996, 357). He even says: ”Mythology, of course, may be described as a primitive form of explanation” (ibid). In this way Gombrich tries to expel mythic without seeing its creative power in history writing.

The next quotation is only one modification of the idea Gombrich has repeatedly repeated a thousand times in his writings. In his essay “Physiognomic perception” he coined the term “the physiognomic fallacy”. Gombrich uses the concept in his critique of Malraux’s book The Voices of Silence. He rightly accuses him as a terrible simplificateur and asserts: “Let me call this tendency to see past in terms of its typical style ‘the physiognomic fallacy’. It would be a harmless fallacy if it did not strengthen the illusion that mankind changed as dramatically and thoroughly as did art. André Malraux has recently extolled this very power of art to transfigure a past into myth. (–) And a myth which is extolled as a myth deserves no name more polite than that” (1963, 108).

It is somewhat fanny to testify Gombrich’s great suspect for the theories of style or the idea of coherence of an age or theories of Zeitgeist. Sometimes this resentment blots out his reasoning. In his book The Sense of Order he asserts: “In linguistics the quest for the “spirit” of language has largely been abandoned” (1984, 225). The analogy between the spirit of age and the spirit of language is a bit vulgar here: the equivalent for the ‘spirit of language’ could be the spirit of art, not “age”.

Though it is a common knowledge that Gombrich hated Zeitgeist associations, he still was forced to refer to the atmosphere of an age. It is fascinating how difficult it is to avoid the reference to the unity of periodical elements. The force of the mythic shows up. In his article on “Western Still Life painting” he asserts how Charles Sterling in France presented the same interpretation as he himself relating to the birth of Still lives, totally independent of each other. Gombrich states: ”It is a curious testimony to the power of ideas which are ‘in the air’ that the present writer came independently to the same conclusion with regard to the origins of landscape painting” (1963, 102). There are also other nice slips in Gombrich, and certainly those slips are like gaps which let mythic come into the discourse. In The Sense of Order he speaks of the regressive character of rococo style and even dears to refer to psychoanalysis (1984, 284). Isn’t this the extreme prove of the use of the ”physiognomic fallacy” as an inevitable slip? And really, in the other place of the book he even seems to admit this (cf. 1984, 215). In his last beautiful book The Preference for the Primitive (2002) Gombrich’s inadvertent dependence on style labels shows up everywhere. Just one example: “Walter Scott certainly fired the artist’s imagination and Romanticism was in the air” (2002, 255).

It is symptomatic that Charles Rosen, the famous pianist and scholar cannot hide his anger when criticising Gombrich. He writes: ”The most visible and distinguished attacks today on the coherence of the period styles come from Sir Ernst Gombrich, who sees the spectre of Hegelianism wherever a unified stylistic field-theory rears its head. Gombrich’s critical intelligence is powerful, his imagination limited: armed with the blinkered positivism of his friend Sir Karl Popper, he has made out a formidable case against Hegelian historical theory without ever being able to account for its seduction” (1998, 167). Rosen asserts that the coherence theory “slinks back disguised even from the author and out of his control: a reviewer of Gombrich’s recent biography of Aby Warburg commented acidly that for someone so opposed to Hegelian theories of style, Gombrich used the expression ’period-flavour’ surprisingly often” (1998, 167).

I hope these quotations tell how the concept of style owns an unavoidable modal supremacy which we cannot resist when making generalisations. A period style is a powerful weapon which shakes our mythic motivations. In line with Cassirer’s and Lévi-Strauss’ideas we can say that the mythic is connected to the manipulation of chronological time – and certainly we have to try to rule the denotative power of Chronos with that connotative arsenal which “contextual interpretation” offers to us and finally named this interpretation according to some style.

With the help of style and the concepts which are linked to it (which articulate time) the so called historical, stolen or lost reality, has been represented. This means postulations regarding the “reality effect” of each period. Indeed, the function of a period style is in its power to make us confine and name this “reality effect”.

In that way definitions of style periods could be sensed as the mythology of art history, or better to say, mythic thinking. When we make contexts as a living whole, we create a period. Myth opens the instant king’s way to contexts which we have demonstrate as being inevitable and real.



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[1] Holly states: ”Because Panofsky wants to stress that perspective is a ”mythical structure” (possibly emphasizing the ’artificiality of a symbolic form’ more than Cassirer would), his optical and mathematical demonstrations can be viewed as curiously unnecessary for his principal point” (1984, 134-135).