Aby Warburg’s work Mnemosyne Atlas (1924–1929)

Coursework, Creative Arts 1.1 Experience Creative Arts, Creative Arts BA (Hons), Project 7: Place and Time in the Archive


Warburg’s attempt to ‘map the afterlife of antiquity’, focused on the renaissance. He chose Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the muses, as the patron saint of his project. Warburg created large black panels onto which he attached black and white images in a kind of grid. The photographs grouped together showed various appropriations of art objects and things such as developments in the representation of Mars over time.

Image from https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/

It is a map of 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 believed that these symbolic images, when juxtaposed and then placed in sequence, could foster immediate, synoptic insights.

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.

In its “last version,” the Mnemosyne Atlas consisted of sixty-three panels. 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 subtraction, 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.

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.


This piece absolutely fascinates me. From a cultural, historical and emotional point of view. I find it incredibly interesting to see someone think about the Renaissance and links to the classical period like this, Greek myths are a huge interest of mine and I am always interested in how the Renaissance took some of these images. It goes back to an earlier thought I had in the course about doing something similar but with Celtic mythology. What fascinates me about the Celts is their almost been forgotten unlike the Greek and Roman Gods. Why is this? What would a Renaissance reimagining of Celtic gods look like?


Johnson, C. (n.d.). About the Mnemosyne Atlas | Mnemosyne. [online] warburg.library.cornell.edu. Available at: https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/about.

Johnson, C. (n.d.). Aby Warburg | Mnemosyne. [online] warburg.library.cornell.edu. Available at: https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/about/aby-warburg [Accessed 31 Jul. 2022].

ZKM (n.d.). Aby Warburg. Mnemosyne Bilderatlas (English) | 2016 | ZKM. [online] zkm.de. Available at: https://zkm.de/en/publication/aby-warburg-mnemosyne-bilderatlas-english [Accessed 31 Jul. 2022].

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