Skip to content

Schramm, Percy Ernst

    Full Name: Schramm, Percy Ernst

    Other Names:

    • Percy Ernst Schramm

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1894

    Date Died: 1970

    Place Born: Hamburg, Germany

    Place Died: Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): German (culture, style, period), German Medieval styles, and Medieval (European)


    Historian and portraiture scholar of the German medieval era. Schramm stemmed from a wealthy merchantile family. His father, Max Schramm (1861-1928), was mayor of Hamburg between 1925 and 1928 and friends with the famous independent art historian Aby M. Warburg. The younger Schramm studied at Warburg’s fledgling institute and from which he gained his bold ideas about the power of symbolism for the medieval world. He volunteered as a soldier in the German army during the first world war. After the war, he entered the University of Heidelberg where he met fellow medievalist student Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz; the two would be lifelong friends with similar methodologies of visual analysis. Both studied under Heidelberg’s two major Geistesgeschichte medievalists, Karl Hampe (1869-1936) and Friedrich Baethgen (1890-1972). Schramm completed his dissertation in 1922 under Hampe with a topic on Otto III. He lectured on medieval art at the Warburg Institute in 1923, which became one of his earliest publications in their Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg. Schramm married Ehrengard “Eta” von Thadden (1900-1985), also an historian, in 1925. His habilition, written under Hampe as well, was a study of imperial ideas from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. He focused on a career in teaching history, joining the historian Harry Breslau (1848-1926) as his assistant and contributor to the final Scriptores volume of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Two books on medieval images appeared in 1928, Die zeitgenössischen Bildnisse Karls des Grossen (Contemporary Portraits of Charlemagne) and Die deutschen Kaiser und Könige in Bilderen ihrer Zeit, essentially image catalogs. The following year he was recommended for the Außerordentliche (assistant) professor position of medieval and modern history at the Universitas Georgia Augusta (Göttingen) by the historian Karl Brandi (1868-1946). He published a version of his habilitationschrift at Kaiser, Rom und Renovatio in 1929. His work succeeded in getting Schramm named a Benjamin D. Shreve Fellow to Princeton University in 1932, the first foreign scholar to earn the award. He spent the 1933 year in New Jersey. His work on coronation symbolism resulted in a 1936 invitation by the British Royal Court to document the coronation, an English translation presented to George VI. Despite his sister-in-law’s execution by the Gestapo–or perhaps out of that fear–Schramm joined the army in Nazi Germany in 1939, rising in 1943 to the rank of major in the German high command. He was assigned as the personal diarist to Adolf Hitler and the German General Staff. After the war, Schramm was sent by the allies to the U.S. Army Historical Division in Versailles, France, though he resumed teaching at Göttingen by 1946. Beginning in 1954, he published his most important book, Herrschaftzeichen und Staatssymbolik (Signs of Rulership and State Symbols), ultimately a three-volume work on medieval objects (septres, miters, etc.) and their symbolism. In 1962 joined the art historian Florentine Mütherich in publishing an inventory of royal portraits and objects of kings and queens of Germany, Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser, published by the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich. His biography of Hitler, published in 1963, caused a stir in West Germany because its pure-reportage style lacked the condemnation of the Nazis. He produced volume 4, Das Nachleben, of the history and legacy of Charlemagne, edited by Wolfgang Braunfels, in 1968. His papers are deposited with the Staatsarchiv Hamburg. As a trained historian, Schramm elevated his ancillary interest in art history to serious academic discipline. His use of symbol analysis–he was the founder of systematic research into the iconography of rulership–and his interest in ritual demonstrated underlying political ideologies of the middle ages. He desparaged the Warburg scholars for ignoring non-classical symbols in medieval art, e.g. Germanic and Slavic (Bak). Herrschaftzeichen und Staatssymbolik “the last product of the culture of German idealism in medieval studies” (Cantor) was a vast catalog of the accoutrements of monarchy, literary, liturgical and artistic. Schramm was also influenced by the work of historian Walter Goetz (1867-1958), a Leipzig medievalist and his mentor, Karl Lamprecht, the founder of social-science based history who had himself written on art history. The Goetz/Lamprecht methodology lead to Schramm’s interest in the dynamic symbols of power, “a kind of anthropology of medieval rulership through a close reading of coronation litergy and study of pictures and royal artifacts,” rethinking Geistesgeschichte and giving it new respectability. Schramm’s use of western Byzantine sources drew the respect of Byzantinist André Grabar and criticism of the historian József Deér (1905-1972). His understanding of historical science was attacked in a 1960 article by Otto Neugebauer (1899-1990), with whom Neugebauer also lumped the work of the Egyptologist Walther Wolf. His work on German royal portraiture remains the standard in the field, though never translated into English.

    Selected Bibliography

    [dissertation:] Studien zur Geschichte Kaiser Ottos III. Heidelberg, 1922;”Das Herrscherbild in der Kunst des frühen Mittelalters.” Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg 1922-1923 2 (1924): 145-239; Die zeitgenössischen Bildnisse Karls des Grossen. Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte des Mittelalters und der Renaissance 29. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1928;Kaiser, Rom und Renovatio. Leipzig: G. B. Teubner, 1929; A History of the English Coronation. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1937; Herrschaftszeichen und Staatssymbolik; Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte vom dritten bis zum sechzehnten Jahrhundert. 3 vols. Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1954-1956; and Mütherich, Florentine. Denkmale der deutschen Könige und Kaiser. 2 vols. Munich: Prestel, 1962-1978; edited, with Braunfels, Wolfgang. Das Nachleben, vol.4 of Karl der Grosse, Lebenswerk und Nachleben. Düsseldorf: L. Schwann, 1968.


    Neugebauer, Otto. “Sense or Nonsense in Scientific Jargon.” Journal of the Courtauld and Warburg Insititutes 23 (1960): 175-6; Kleinbauer, W. Eugene. Research Guide to the History of Western Art. Sources of Information in the Humanities, no. 2. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982, p. 73; Cantor, Norman F. “The Nazi Twins: Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz.” in, Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow, 1991, pp. 79-117 [problematic analysis]; Bak, János. “Percy Ernst Schramm (1894-1970),” in Damico, Helen and Zavadil, Joseph B., ed. Medieval Scholarship. Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline. vol. 1. New York: Garland, 1995, pp. 247-262; Bak, János M. “Percy Ernst Schramm.” in, Boyd, Kelly, ed. Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing. vol. 2 Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999, p. 1067; Thimme, David. Percy Ernst Schramm und das Mittelalter: Wandlungen eines Geschichtsbildes s.l.: Vandenhoeck &Ruprecht, 2006; Matikkala, Antti. “Percy Ernst Schramm and Herrschaftszeichen.” Mirator 13 (2012): 37-69,; [obituary:] “Dr. Percy Ernst Schramm Dead; Published Nazi Command Diary.” New York Times November 14, 1970, p. 31.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Schramm, Percy Ernst." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

    More Resources

    Search for materials by & about this art historian: