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Panofsky and Saxl - Classical Mythology in Medieval Art

Panofsky and Saxl - Classical Mythology in Medieval Art

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Classical Mythology in Mediaeval ArtAuthor(s): Erwin Panofsky and Fritz SaxlSource:
Metropolitan Museum Studies,
Vol. 4, No. 2 (Mar., 1933), pp. 228-280Published by:
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Accessed: 19/01/2011 18:57
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CLASSICALMYTHOLOGYINMEDIAEVALART1By
ERWINPANOFSKYANDFRITZSAXL
The earliestItalianwritersabout thehistoryofart,such for instance asGhiberti,Alberti,andespeciallyGiorgioVasari,thoughtthat classi-calartwasoverthrownat thebeginningoftheChristian era and that it didnotreviveuntil,duringthe fourteenthandfifteenth centuriesinItaly,it served as thefoundationofwhatisusuallycalledtheRenaissance.Thereasonsforthisoverthrow,asthose writers sawit,weretheinvasions of barbarousracesandthe hos-tilityof theearlyChristianpriestsand scholars.Inthinkingastheydidtheearlywriterswere bothrightandwrong.Theywerewrongin so far as the Renaissancewas connected withthe MiddleAgesbyinnumerablelinks,manyofthembeingimplicitin theveryname Mid-dleAges,whichisa Renaissance erm based ontheold Italianconceptionof culturalevolution.ClassicalconceptionssurvivedthroughouttheMiddleAges-literary,philosophical,scientific,and artistic-andtheywereespecially strongafterthetimeofCharlemagne,under whosereignthere had been a deliberate classicalre-vivalinalmosteveryculturalfield.Theearlywriterswererightinsofar as the artisticformsunder which the classicalconceptionspersistedduringthe MiddleAgeswereutterlydifferentfrom ourpresentideasofantiquity,whichdidnotcomeintoexistenceuntilthe"Renaissance"in its truesenseof the"rebirth"ofantiquityas a well-defined historicalphenomenon.Duringthe MiddleAgesin thewesternEu-
1This article isarevised version ofalecturede-livered for the first timetotheteachingstaff andstu-dents of theDepartmentofFine Artsof PrincetonUniversity.Itresulted,however,fromthe commonendeavor of the twoauthors,whoin theirresearchwere assistedbytheHamburgstudents ofarthistory.FurthermoreI feelindebtedto Mrs.MargaretBarrforherparticipationintheEnglishwording.E. P.
ropeancountriestwasinconceivablehat aclassicalmythologicalubjecthouldberepre-sentedwithinthelimitsoftheclassicalstyle,asitwasinRaphael'sictureofJupiterandVenusin theceilingof theVillaFarnesina(fig.i).AlthoughtherearemonumentsofByzantineart,such astheso-calledrosettecasketswith reliefsoftheLaborsfHercules
andothersimilarthemes(fig.2),2which,in
so farasthey representlassicalsubjectmatterinclassicaloratleastpseudo-classical)orms,arecomparableoRaphael'sresco,we findnothingthat iscomparableothemintheWesterncountriesduringthe"high"MiddleAges.Evenn theVeniceof thedugento,lose-lyconnected s itwas withByzantium,n an-tiquereliefof Herculescouldnot beimitat-edwithoutchangingtsmythological ubject(figs.4,5).Thelion'sskinwasreplacedbyafluttering rapery,heboarbecameastag,theterrifiedEuristheuswasleftout,and theherowasmadeto standuponavanquishedragon.Asthehumansoul wasoftensymbolizedyastag,the resultofthesechangeswasthat theclassicalhero had beentransformedntotheSaviourconqueringvil andsavingthesoulsof the Faithful.From thisexamplewe learnthatmediaevalWestern artwasunable,or,whatcomes othesamething,wasunwilling,to retainaclassicalprototypewithoutdestroy-ingeither tsoriginalorm,or,ashere,tsorig-
inalmeaning.
2
Still,Goldschmidt andWeitzmann intheir recentpublicationof thesecasketspointedout that theBy-zantineivorycarvers werefarfromreallyunderstand-ingthesubjectmatter of theclassicalgroupsandfig-ures,whichtheygenerallyused as mereornaments,finallytransformingall thefiguresintoputti,asis thecase inourfigure
2
(GoldschmidtandWeitzmann,fig.35).As forfigure3,comparenote26.228
 
CLASSICALMYTHOLOGY INMEDIAEVALART
One ofthe essentialcharacteristicsfthewesternEuropeanmindseemstobethewayinwhichitdestroys hingsand thenreinte-gratesthem on a newbasis-breakingwithtraditiononlyto return oitfromanentirelynewpointofview-and thusproduces"reviv-als"n the true sense oftheword.Byzantineart,on thecontrary,everhavinglostitscon-classicalthoughtcontinuedthroughthepost-classical ra.To thisendhebuiltupalibrarydevotedexclusivelyothatsubject.ndoingthis,so farfromconfininghimselftowhatisusuallyalledarthistory-forthatwouldhavemadehisresearchimpossiblehefound t nec-essaryobranchutintomanyieldsuntilthenuntouchedbyarthistorians.Hislibrary,here-
FIG.I.VENUSIMPLORINGJUPITER,BYRAPHAELVILLAFARNESINA,ROME
nectionwithantiquity,wasincapablef find-ingitswaytowhatwemaycallamodernstyle.Since thefourteenthandfifteenthcen-turiest hascontented tselfwithmereassimi-lation oftheWesternattainmento its owntradition f evolution.Thuswe canseethatwhatmaybe calledtheproblemof"renaissancephenomena"sone ofthecentralproblemsnthehistoryofEuropeanulture.With this as hispointofde-parturehe lateProfessorAbyWarburgofHamburgonceived hefruitfuldeaofdirect-inghis scientificesearch tthewayinwhich
fore,embracesthehistoryofreligionsaswellas thatofliterature, science,philosophy,law,andwhatwemaygenerallycallsuperstition,togetherwith theirvariousstreamsof tradi-tion.Inthepresentessayitwill beour en-deavor,whileexaminingasingle problem,todemonstrate themethodsofresearch devel-opedbyAbyWarburgand hisfollowers.Ourproblem,then,isthe roleofclassicalmythologyinmediaeval art. Inexaminingitweshallpaynoattentiontotheinnumerableexamples,likethe Venetianreliefwehavementioned,inwhichaclassicalmythological
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