Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology


‘Bilderfahrzeuge’, literally meaning image vehicles, is a term, coined by the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929). It answers to a concept that was of the uttermost importance for Warburg since his work sought to trace lines of continuity linking Antiquity with the Renaissance – lines that he felt materialised out of nothing other than the ‘Bildwanderung’, the migration of images. Of course, Warburg is not the only one who has shown an interest in that problem, neither was he the first. Count Goblet D’Alviella’s 1891 study of The Migration of Symbols is only one early case among quite a few displaying a similar approach. Yet, Warburg has succeeded in articulating the phenomenon in an iconic quality: in form of his famous Bildatlas whose protagonists – motifs whose migration across time and space becomes apparent over the course of the atlas’ various panels – are nothing else than ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’.


Financers and Partners

The project ‘Bilderfahrzeuge. Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology’ sets out to explore the migration of images, objects, commodities, texts, in short: the migration of ideas in a broad historical and geographical context. It is funded by the German ministry of higher education and science, realised in cooperation with the Max Weber Stiftung, and situated at the Warburg Institute, London, as well as at the Deutsche Forum für Kunstgeschichte, Paris, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Kunsthistorische Institut, Florence, and Warburg Haus, Hamburg. Each institution is represented by one of the five Professors who are directing the project: Andreas Beyer (Basel/Paris) who is also functioning as the project’s speaker, Horst Bredekamp (Berlin), Uwe Fleckner (Hamburg), Bill Sherman (London), and Gerhard Wolf (Florence).


The project seeks to provide a fundamental contribution to a cultural history – through a history of images and ideas practised in an interdisciplinary and international setting. Through its own, quite specific expertise with images, Art History has the opportunity to establish the autonomy of the image, which it can then offer as an independent and constitutive aspect to an interdisciplinary cultural science. At the same time one of the project’s special qualities consist in engaging with the specific character of images without positing an image-language opposition. Instead, it seeks to explore language’s complementary arc of development and work with it. If, as it has been stated, Art History in general is predestined to be an open partner in an expansive, interdisciplinary research, the Bilderfahrzeuge project in particular relies on a fertile field of dialogue in order to pursue its comprehensive cultural science approach. It shall provide the appropriate and fundamental mechanisms to access the transference of image concepts and forms by accessing the ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ – the vehicles of images. In terms of media science, an interest lies in the ‘vehicle’, its particular and specific historical form. At the same time, ‘images’ are regarded as the main focus of the research. It takes material images as a theme as well as linguistic images, but also considers access to images, or treatment and use of them, in literature, humanities, and science.



Therefore, the project consists of art historians, medievalists, comparativists, and philosophers from Italy, France, Germany, the US, Mexico, and the UK. The overall project is formed of various subprojects that range from material based art historical researches (Eckart Marchand, Pablo Schneider, Elenea Tolstichin, Isabella Woldt) over cultural historical and literary ones (Linda Báez Rubí, Rebecca Darley, Philipp Ekardt, Christopher Johnson, Johannes von Müller) to historiographical analyses in the broadest sense (Victor Claass, Maria Teresa Costa, Hans Christian Hoenes, Reinhard Wendler). Yet, those divers studies benefit from a close cooperation that leads to constant interchanges and eventually to annulling a definite differentiation of the several topics and fields.



Every institution outside of London houses two scientific collaborators who are working on their individual projects: one collaborator each in Berlin, Florence, Hamburg, and Paris and one in London. Thus the various partners send in total four collaborators to the Warburg Institute. Guaranteeing a continuous exchange with their home institutions, those delegates work together with their London colleagues: three scientific collaborators, an archivist, the project’s assistant, and the coordinator. Thus, the Warburg Institute stands in the centre of the Bilderfahrzeuge project.



The project is not primarily committed to monographic Warburg research – though some of the scientific collaborators will focus on theses items. Anyhow, the project’s research is very well related to Warburg and his circle with its findings and debates. Yet, they create merely the background for the methodological and theoretical fine tuning over the project’s duration. Warburg’s methods and approaches allow to access images in a highly sensitive way. Such a skill is fundamental since almost all aspects of modern life are influenced by images. This applies for the entertainment industry, for performative forms of commodities, or the political sphere. Possibly with even more serious consequences, images have an impact on all areas of knowledge and research – not only humanities but natural sciences too. At the very dawn of this new age of media Warburg himself has demonstrated the wide use of his methods. He examined the international press and war propaganda over the course of the 1st World War, exerting his experience in handling images. Here lie the possibilities in reconstructing and updating his research approach. That approach is closely linked to the school of ‘iconology’ through the intellectual figure Erwin Panofsky, maybe the most famous among Warburg’s students, and his concepts for examining images. This school of ‘iconology’ shall function as the core of a new, a genuinely transcultural and transepochal intellectual research method for examining the history of images.