Discover the origins behind the ‘ΜΝΗΜΟΣΥΝΗ’ (‘Mnemosyne’) inscription found on the lintel at Aby Warburg’s former library (now the Warburg-Haus) in this blog post by Professor Uwe Fleckner.
Doors, with their jambs, lintels and thresholds, are key features in most forms of architecture. In many cultures they are assigned a meaning in the psychology or anthropology of building, for they protect the transitional areas between closed and freely accessible spaces with apotropaic visual magic: figures, masks, ornaments or inscriptions designed to ward off dangers, whether physical or also spiritual. In modern architecture, too, we continue to find the atavisms of magical defences – ‘threshold magic’ of the kind Walter Benjamin observed in many contemporary places in the course of his Arcades Project.
When Aby Warburg, whose lifetime of scientific achievement was devoted to such phenomena as the ‘survival’ of even archaic pictorial formulae, had his Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek building constructed in Hamburg’s Heilwigstrasse, he wanted to mark the liminal situation of the entrance area with a special structural feature that would later acquire some celebrity (fig. 1). Visitors entering the small draught lobby of the former library (now the Warburg-Haus) find themselves in front of a second, inner door, above which – carved flush into the stone of the lintel – the name of the Greek goddess of memory, ΜΝΗΜΟΣΥΝΗ (‘Mnemosyne’), can be read. Moving on into the interior of the building, they bow their heads – at least mentally, if not physically – before a key concept of Warburg’s, which confronts them with the spiritual foundation of the building: they undergo, as it were, a rite de passage on entering the library, a threshold ritual that entitles outsiders to share in the research taking place here, and commits the institute’s staff – then, and perhaps even now – to the pursuit of Aby Warburg’s scientific goals.
After returning from Ludwig Binswanger’s sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Warburg pressed ahead with his already existing wish for an institutional building of his own, and discussed his plans with Hamburg’s influential director of urban planning Fritz Schumacher, who in December 1924 approached a young colleague, Gerhard Langmaack, with a request to render the jointly developed design ideas in architectural form (letter from Fritz Schumacher to Aby Warburg, 30 December 1924, London, Warburg Institute Archive, WIA GC/14864). As early as April 1925 Warburg told his architect that he wanted to have the Greek inscription chiselled in stone above the entrance (letter from Aby Warburg to Gerhard Langmaack, 29 April 1925, London, Warburg Institute Archive, WIA GC/30076). But in the end, it was again Schumacher who provided the design for the lettering used in this structural detail that mattered so much to Warburg (letter from Fritz Schumacher to Aby Warburg, 11 August 1925, London, Warburg Institute Archive, WIA GC/16772). Schumacher sketched the letters into an only now rediscovered full-size drawing, shaded the flat relief of the letters and finally, the word was chiselled into the lintel (fig. 2). The elegant typographical rendering can be seen to this day – albeit in restored form – by anyone entering the Warburg-Haus: carved into the sandstone are letters in a modern typeface, following the model of Roman capitalis monumentalis, standing out in yellow-brown pigment against the mottled grey and white length of stone. On entering the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek, the library’s visitors thus already had a staged transitional experience that would bring the research institution’s self-image home to them on their way into the reading room and lecture hall – turning what Fritz Saxl called the ‘problem building’ of the K. B. W. into an architectural expression of Warburg’s concept.
Warburg is one of the world’s leading intellectual instigators of today’s humanities; researchers could then, and can now still, learn from him how artefacts of all kinds undergo continual migration processes, and – no less important – what political references are inherent in the visual information that we encounter hundreds of times a day in the most varied media. The lintel from his former library thus still serves a thoroughly apotropaic purpose: Aby Warburg’s scientific legacy saves us from being left at the utter mercy of surging floods of images.