Book Review: Revisiting the Monument: Fifty Years since Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture

Revisiting the Monument: Fifty Years since Panofsky’s Tomb Sculpture

Ann Adams and Jessica Barker (eds.), Courtauld Books Online, 2016

Robert Hawkins reviews a recent publication from the Courtauld Institute of Art

In 1964, Erwin Panofsky published Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini. The first line of the book states that it was a text ‘not intended for publication’: it was prepared as a ‘little series of public lectures’, given at The Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. Panofsky warned his friends: ‘Please don’t read the rather superficial text… Just look at the pictures which are, for the most part, quite nice’. The book, he claimed, had an index ‘produced by an idiot’ and was ‘very superficial … in part misleading, and horrible to look at’.

Nonetheless, it has become a canonical work, largely because of the un-matched scope of the study and the extensive illustrations. Despite Panofsky’s own dismissive remarks, the text has obvious merits: it deftly organises three millennia of disparate sculpture to produce comprehensible narratives, offering terms that begin to get a handle on the different ways that funerary sculpture might function. He sets up characteristic polarities between, for instance, ‘retrospective’ monuments (which recall past life) and ‘prospective’ monuments (which anticipate after-life) or between flat, schematic relief and plastic, naturalising sculpture. The dichotomies are occasionally crude, but they give a rough road map by which the sprawling landscape might begin to be navigated.

This new collection of essays, edited by Jessica Barker and Ann Adams and published by Courtauld Books Online, contains both ‘retrospective’ and ‘prospective’ approaches. Some essays look back to specific issues raised by Panofsky’s original text; some look forward to new avenues opening up in the study of tomb sculpture. Of course, these two approaches are co-dependent, for it is often through the remembering of things past that windows are opened onto future possibilities. The editors have narrowed the scope by presenting a series of ‘short stories’, focusing on medieval and Renaissance topics, in response to Panofsky’s original epic narrative.

The essays are presented in three sections. Section 1 deals most explicitly with Panofsky’s text, contextualizing it (Susie Nash’s account of the original’s compilation and publication is full of archival insight) and complicating its arguments (Shirin Fozi, Robert Marcoux, and Geoffrey Nuttall).  Section 2 considers the relationships between monuments and their viewers: Jessica Barker deals with juxtapositions of visible/invisible and corrupted/incorruptible bodies; Luca Palozzi forges literary links with Petrarch; James Cameron describes the relationship between funerary monuments and liturgical seating. Section 3 addresses material issues, proceeding from Kim Woods’ observation that materials are almost entirely absent from Panofsky’s discussion to corrective essays by Sanne Frequin, Matthew Reeves, and Martha Dunkelman. Ann Adams addresses the fact that monumental brasses are missing from Panofsky’s text (only one example features, from St James’ Church, Draycot Cerne, Wiltshire). Adams’ essay is good example of the book in its additive mode – brasses at Cleves, Nijmegen, Geldern, and in England, are brought into the discussion, in an attempt to counter the idea that all tomb brasses were subordinate to their marble equivalents.

Many passages evidence a growing awareness among contemporary scholars of the problems raised by studying monuments from photographs alone. This is stressed, for example, by Shirin Fozi in her essay ‘From the Pictorial to the Statuesque: Two Romanesque Effigies and the Problem of Plastic Form’, and by Geoffrey Nuttall, who sees Panofsky’s reliance on photographs taken from above as the ‘primary cause’ of his misinterpretation of the Trenta tomb. Nuttall, building on the ideas of John Shearman, considers the ‘activation’ of Crivelli and Pecci tomb slabs when positioned in real space and seen from the differing perspectives of a moving spectator. Panofsky’s original publication did indeed rely mainly on stock images for the illustrations and therefore on well-established, canonical viewpoints (although, as Susie Nash points out, Panofsky was not insensitive to the problems this created and on one occasion requested a new photograph be made in order to illustrate a particular angle of view). Particularly in the third section, ‘Monuments and Materials’, the authors make use of first-hand access and technical innovations that were simply unavailable to Panofsky, who worked primarily from photographs. A recurring theme of these new essays, then, facilitated and perhaps engendered by these practical developments, is the desire to consider the experience of an embodied, mobile spectator.

There is a certain consensus of opinion among the contributing authors and it recurs as a refrain at the start of each essay: all agree Panofsky’s original book ought to be admired (particularly for its magisterial breadth, which has not since been rivaled), but that its enormous scope means that its analysis lacked depth and that there is consequently work to be done by modern scholars, expanding, deepening, complicating, revising. The authors stress the importance of placing tombs within specific contexts (artistic, spatial, liturgical), ‘expanding and destabilising the neat teleological narrative proposed by Panofsky’. But it remains an argument with, rather than against, Panofsky. In this sense this book is part of a current trend of renewed interest in Panofsky’s oeuvre. Christopher Lakey, for example, is revisiting the arguments of Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, maintaining their general shape but probing and interrogating the difficult details.

In Revisiting the Monument we find many examples of the same strategy of destabilising Panofsky’s arguments in order to uphold them. Robert Marcoux, for example, responds in his essay to a 1965 review of Panofsky’s book, which judged the catagories of ‘Prospection’ and ‘Retrospection’ to be rather arbitrary. Marcoux, anxious not to make the same mistake, instead proposes ‘more of a dialectical way of understanding the rich diversity of medieval tombs by presenting the notions of retrospection and prospection as two poles between which the commemoration of the dead oscillates in the later Middle Ages’. So this is a fantasia on a theme by Panofsky – a richer, more polyphonic re-scoring, perhaps – but the melody remains recognizable.

There are occasional frustrating lapses into obfuscation: ‘the material specificity of the tomb slab’, writes one contributor, ‘is that it is intrinsically linked to the grave by serving as its cover.’ And there is some caricaturing of Panofsky’s original position: Sanne Frequin claims that Panofsky discussed only iconography and not ‘material’ – but surely the two meet in his discussion of sculptural plasticity, which is dealt with eloquently elsewhere in this volume by Shirin Fozi. Largely, though, the essays are clear and well-argued, and together they make for a thorough review of the topic.

The book’s title sets up an illuminating metaphor (which runs throughout, most explicitly in Susie Nash’s essay): it suggests that Tomb Sculpture is itself now a commemorative monument, to be contextualized, critiqued and analysed. Indeed, Panofsky was aware of its likely funerary function: so delayed was the publication of the original book that it nearly became a tombstone for its aging author. ‘I begin to be afraid that the Tombs will really appear as a post-humous memorial’, he wrote, ‘… but I should not mind’. These new essays, then, serve to extend, repair and elaborate upon the original monument. They work, just as a piece of tomb sculpture works, to (as Shirin Fozi has it) ‘retool a problematic legacy as a larger spiritual success.’ And although teleogies are questioned and lacunae interrogated, much of the fabric of the original book continues to be venerated. So often, it seems, Panofsky’s almost-instinct has proven almost true. And what will survive of his monumental text, therefore, is love.

Robert Hawkins, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

Review first published in the Summer 2017 issue of Mausolus, the Journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Trust

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About AJeffs

Amy is doing a PhD at the University of Cambridge with Prof Paul Binski. She works on illustrated histories produced in England between 1240 and 1340. Alongside her PhD she is co-convening the Digital Pilgrim Project and edits Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Trust.

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