Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2

Panofsky had been in America since September of 1931, invited as guest lecturer by Professor Cook:

Two years before the enforced exodus of the intellectual élite that followed the advent of Hitler, Panofsky became a regular guest professor in the United States, at the invitation of Professor Cook. He [Panofsky] lectured in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of what was to become the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University’s graduate department of art history, and immediately made a deep impression on his American colleagues and students.

  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21. (p.13).
  • [Biography] Dr. Walter S. Cook, in whose honour annual lectures are presented at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.

The meeting with Mrs. Voynich is most easily explained by positing that both were consulting medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, for it was a worker there (the librarian?)  Ms.Greene who offered to introduce Mrs. Voynich to the Professor.

“Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem … [but now] a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky … is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think.” – Letter from Anne Nill to H.Garland, (Feb 10th., 1932).

Mrs. Voynich first showed Panofsky the worn negative photostats, perhaps late in 1931, but he saw the manuscript itself the next year – on Feb. 5th 1932. (see first post in this series)


Panofsky’s subsequent career in America; the value of his private (1932) assessment of the manuscript.

or Panofsky’s earlier approach to art, see

On Panofsky in America, I’ll cite Gaston:

 Panofsky’s appointment to the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 and to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935, together with his extraordinary productivity and high profile as public lecturer in the following three decades guaranteed him a stellar career, and an influence within the discipline, and the humanities in general, that was then unrivalled for an art historian. …One of the serious shortcomings of Panofsky’s approach to images was his unwillingness to explore the social matrices in which [pictures] were produced and used.

  • (review) Irving Lavin (ed.), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) (1995) reviewed by Robert W.Gaston in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 613-623.

Panofsky wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, and mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

He was not omniscient, nor dispassionate.  He revered humanism and like the majority of his own time, idealised the model of the auteur as creative spirit gifted with  superior sensitivity, perception and so forth. It is the more appealing, humanist and individualist, counterpart for that obsession with the dominant white male which infused the whole of medieval Latin art and remained a preoccupation of historians in the European tradition for most of the twentieth century.


Where Panofsky’s opinion differed from the majority.
  • Non-Latin

Absence of the ‘dominant white male’ theme – and numerous other defining themes of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art – from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is a powerful argument for the content’s non-Latin origin – something Panofsky recognised. He attributed it to southern (Sephardi?) Jewish origin saying he recognised influence from Islamic style and from Kabbalah. If he ever elaborated on these things in writing, no record of it has come to light.

There are details in the manuscript which express the Mediterranean and/or Latin (i.e. western European) traditions – but in the present writer’s view these are plainly late-phase additions. They include (of course) post-manufacture items such as marginalia, but some details in the body of the work – principally the central motifs in the calendar’s diagrams.

It never occurred to Wilfrid Voynich to suppose the work other than the individual creation (autograph) of an individual, ‘superior type’ and a white male European.  Nor, apparently did others look much further than southern Europe and the figure of Ramon Llull.

This phenomenon,by which the world is effectively defined as Europe – and into which nothing comes except by the authority and choice of a Latin European male – was usual among nineteenth century historians and particularly the Anglo-German school.  It affected assumptions then, and is still with us, having deeply impacted on the course, nature and direction of the manuscript’s study for most of the period from 1912-2015.

The present author found, still, in 2014, that the majority of Voynicheros imagine it impossible that anything of non-European origin could be found in Europe except that Latin European had fetched it or commissioned its being brought.  This is what we call the ‘White Wall’ phenomenon, and that it should persist to the present day would surely distress Lynn White – a pioneer in the history of cross-cultural exchange upon whose pioneering studies so much more has now been built.

  • .Lynn White, Jr., ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159
  • ________________, ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.
  • ________________, ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221

Panofsky does not suggest the manuscript’s content came from any great distance, but the very fact that he could see the content does not evince the culture of Latin Europe sets his opinion of the manuscript apart from the majority.

Though apparently Panofsky’s 1932 assessment came to be known to the Friedman group, neither it nor his responses of 1954 were given much weight by the cryptanalysts.  In 1978 d’Imperio knows so little of Panofsky’s work that she imagines him unaware of the work of Albertus Magnus (!)

  • Non-authorial

Panofsky differs again from the reflexive assumptions made by those writing about the manuscript from 1912-1954.

He does not imagine any  ‘author’ for the whole work in 1933 and even in 1945, speaks of a nameless figure, almost a generic one: the man writing down his life-time’s learning for his son. Even that idea seems to imply that much of what is written is to be seen as inherited from an earlier time.

The majority simply presumed the work the creation of a Latin ‘author’ and the matter contemporaneous with the present manuscript’s inscription.

On the other hand, Panofsky no more than anyone else during the twentieth century imagined that the work could be entirely derivative.

In 1932 he saw it emerging from a community rather than an individual. BY 1954, in answer to Q.10, he speaks of “a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir”.

Social history did not exist as yet, except as a means to make lessons attractive for children or by way of that idealisation of medieval artisans reflected by the ‘arts and crafts movement‘.

The first English-language History of Technology – its first volume –  was published only in 1954, under Charles’ Singer’s editorship.

The interaction between the history of events and the history of economic factors has always been in flux, and though England is given much credit for the study’s development, even in the 1950s it was often dismissed as  ‘mere commerce’.

Social history as a scholarly discipline only gained general recognition in the 1960s (initially termed ‘laundry-list history’) and women’s history gained its place still later.

Comparative cultural studies were almost unheard of, and Lynn White struggled against the ‘white wall’ phenomenon for thirty years and more.

In the context of his time, Panofsky’s approach to the manuscript and his forming opinions solely from the primary evidence – though by reference to his own wide range of substantial study – makes his the most important commentary we have on the subject of the imagery, even now.

Because it suited the Friedmans believe that the text was a very clever, unique, cipher, they were obliged to adopt an ‘authorial’ idea of the manuscript, and this has proven a persistent habit in the study, though less emphasised since about 2011.

  • Composite of earlier matter.

I take as implied by the answer he gave to Friedman’s Q.10 that Panofsky saw the manuscript as deriving from earlier matter;  something of the same implication might be taken from his alluding to Kabbalah in 1932.

The ‘authorial’ idea carried an   expectation of the homogenous autograph, an idea found in most commentaries on the manuscript to as late as 2010-2011, when the present author was obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the second mailing list for saying the content could be no autograph, nor the work of a single author, because the stylistic variations indicated derivation from at least three earlier sources, each manifesting a distinct history and line of transmission to Europe.

That opinion is now widely accepted – without reference to the present author’s evidence and argument – because after some months, one contributor to that mailing list recalled that the word ‘compilation’ is found somewhere in the ‘Voynich gospel’ – d’Imperio’s booklet of 1978. This official ‘sanction’ permitted the then-radical shift from the traditional ‘authorial’ to ‘non-authorial’ approach. ( My thanks to Don Hoffman for being the first to brave the picket-line and adopt the conclusions of my work, even use of the technical term ‘florilegium’ – which in medieval times meant a collection of textual, not botanical, items).

  • Setting aside Newbold’s categories.

Panofsky was among the very few to offer any explanation of the manuscript and of its content by reference to the primary document itself, and he never adopted  Newbold’s impressionistic categories  as others did – including the cryptanalysts’ who merely elaborated  them.

He avoided  both the ‘authorial’ notion and Newbold’s idea of a specifically ‘biological’ section.

Once again, neither Panofsky’s opinion, (nor the substantial evidence and argument provided by the present writer from 2009) saw the abandonment of Newbold’s and Friedman’s “categories” – with the result that one still sees Voynich narratives produced and adopted which unsupported by the historical evidence.

On efforts to justify the ‘biological’ idea see e.g.

I am told, though have not the details, that a contributor to is presently (Jan-Feb 2019) reprising Velinksa’s ideas and approach, though whether properly acknowledging the precedents, including Velinska’s work, you must discover for yourself.  In either case, it is a nonsense within any theory insisting the manuscript entirely the product of Latin European culture. Da Vinci was a hundred years before his time, and he wasn’t born until 1519: at best eighty years after the manuscript was made, and at worst (for such ideas) almost a century.

But the persistence of such notions relies, ultimately on an impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.


  • Opinions as conclusions from evidence.

Unlike the majority of Voynich writers, before him or since, Panofsky derived his opinions from the primary source and solid historical and iconographic evidence.

Every extant study by him displays a consistent rigor and his sense of obligation to the reader: he will explain how he reached each point in his conclusions by reference to direct, specific, and verifiable reference across a wide range of historical, textual and art-historical material – always with a focus on the primary evidence.  One may differ, but one is never asked simply ‘to believe’.  His aim is not persuasion but elucidation.  It constitutes a forensic approach which was to that time, and is largely still, scarcely employed in discussions of Beinecke MS 408.

One must suppose that had he been asked to do so, Panofsky could have produced a study of the manuscript –  its form and imagery –  which would have substantially altered our understanding of its content.

But all he was asked to do was fill out  Friedman’s questionnaire.

A brief outline of Panofsky’s usual practice is offered here.

Next post: Panofsky’s hesitations.

minor corrections 8th Feb. 2019