About the Mnemosyne Atlas

Begun in 1924 and left unfinished at the time of his death in 1929, the Mnemosyne Atlas is Aby Warburg’s attempt to map the “afterlife of antiquity,” or how images of great symbolic, intellectual, and emotional power emerge in Western antiquity and then reappear and are reanimated in the art and cosmology of later times and places, from Alexandrian Greece to Weimar Germany. Focusing especially on the Renaissance, the historical period where he found the struggle between the forces of reason and unreason to be most palpable, Warburg hoped that the Mnemosyne Atlas would allow its spectators to experience for themselves the “polarities” that riddle culture and thought.

Warburg’s combinatory experiments in the Atlas follow his own metonymic, intuitive logic, even as it is propelled by decades of rigorous scholarship. Warburg believe that these symbolic images, when juxtaposed and then placed in sequence, could foster immediate, synoptic insights into the afterlife of pathos-charged images depicting what he dubbed “bewegtes Leben” (life in motion or animated life). As such, the Mnemosyne Atlas strives to make the ineffable process of historical change and recurrence immanent and comprehensible. More specifically, the Atlas would chart both the afterlife of the classical language of gestures in Renaissance art and beyond as well as the migration of Greek cosmological symbolism up through to the moment when Bruno and Kepler tried to reconcile the legacies of classical and astrological thought with the discoveries of early modern astronomy. The Atlas functions cartographically, too, as it explores how meanings are constituted by the movement of themes and styles between East and West, North and South. Transforming the cartographic and scientific notions of what an “atlas” should be, Warburg creates a dynamic “thought-space” [Denkraum] where cosmographic and art-historical images reveal how subjective and objective forces shape Western culture.

In its “last version,” the Mnemosyne Atlas consisted of sixty-three panels (Tafeln). Using wooden boards, measuring approximately 150 x 200 cm and covered with black cloth, Warburg arranged and rearranged, in a lengthy combinatory process of addition and substraction, black and white photographs of art-historical and cosmographical images. Here and there he also included photographs of maps, manuscript pages, and contemporary images drawn from newspapers and magazines. The individual panels, in turn, were then numbered and ordered to create still larger thematic sequences.

While in his later years Warburg increasingly deployed such panels in his lectures and presentations (most famously in his Hertziana lecture in Rome in 1929), he also hoped to publish the Mnemosyne Atlas. Indeed, he planned to supplement a volume of plates with two volumes of text, containing historical and interpretive material. However, as he left the Atlas at the time of his death, the balance of word and image is decidedly tilted toward the latter. It is left to us latecomers, then, to carefully supplement the gaps, to connect the Wanderstrassen that Warburg adumbrated. This can be done in myriad ways: by adducing his published and unpublished writings; by further mining and explicating Warburg’s own sources; by weighing subsequent scholarship on the artists, the eras, the questions, that fascinated Warburg; by conceiving new ways to map the territories that he first adumbrated; and by deepening and extending his insights and methods, either by applying them to new materials and/or in order to reflect on the nature of historical knowledge and scholarship more generally.

But back to the Mnemosyne Atlas. The actual panels of the “last version” are no longer extant; only black and white photographs (18 x 24 cm) of them remain, held in the archives of the Warburg Institute. However, seventy-one years after Warburg’s death, Martin Warnke with the assistance of Claudia Brink, produced a magnificent edition of the atlas based on the “last version.” [See Der Bilderatlas: Mnemosyne in Warburg’s Gesammelte Schriften, II.1 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2000 [reprinted in 2003, 2008]). The other volumes in the Gesammelte Schriften, from the two volumes of Warburg’s published writings [I.1-2], the Tagebuch der Kulturwissenschaftlich Bibliothek Warburg [VII] to the just published, Austellungen [II.3], offer other avenues for interpreting and supplementing the Mnemosyne Atlas.] In addition to providing Warburg’s draft Introduction to the Mnemosyne Atlas – a key if characteristically knotty fragmentary text – they also reproduce Fritz Saxl’s illuminating letter to a prospective publisher regarding the Atlas, while Warnke’s own Introduction provides important details about the Mnemosyne Atlas, its genesis, scope, and potential meanings.

We know, then, that Warburg’s plan had been to complete at least 79 and perhaps as many as 200 panels. Typically, though, Warburg’s vision was not fully realized. As we have it, the Atlas is frozen in a provisional state: panels appear without titles; individual images – there are 971 in all – were for the most part displayed without titles or other identifying information; and while some photographs are matted, most are not. Fortunately, though, in a notebook titled Überschriften: Synopsis of Plates [WIA, III.104.1], Warburg’s colleague Gertrud Bing, following her mentor’s lead, offers brief headings for each panel, furnishing thereby a kind of conceptual shorthand signposting main subjects and themes. For instance, the headings summarizing the astrological symbolism of panel 22 read: “Spanish-Arabic practice. (Alfonso). Manipulation. The cosmic system as dice table. Sorcery. Lithomancy.” Such abbreviated, aphoristic indications of what and how we are to interpret resemble the headings of an encyclopedic entry – albeit an encyclopedia consisting entirely of pictures. Or, if you will, the photographs of the panels serve as a set of post-modern grisailles, a belated memory palace, which invites us to contemplate Warburg’s syncretic vision of the afterlife of pagan symbolism and cosmography in medieval, Renaissance, and post-Renaissance art and thought.

This website presents ten of these photographed panels, selected to exemplify both the cosmographical and art-historical content of the Mnemosyne Atlas. Though offering but fragments of a fragment, it is designed to show some of the Wanderstrassen that Warburg pursued in the Atlas. The Warburg Institute has provided new, better scans of the surviving photographs – better, that is, than the images seen in the Gesammelte Schriften volume and other publications (to say nothing of other venues on the Web).

Furthermore, the ability to zoom in and out on the panels and on individual images permits a closer inspection of the material aspects of the Atlas. Alternately, if you click on individual images, a window providing identifying information will appear; frequently links to further iterations and permutations on the same image are also provided. Finally, under the tab “Guided Panels,” the user will find interpretations of individual panels by myself and other scholars. Such meanderings, of course, are meant to be at best exemplary, but never exhaustive.

Christopher D. Johnson