E. H. Gombrich, Geburtstagsatlas für Max M. Warburg (5 June 1937)

After Warburg’s death on 26 October 1926, his former assistants, Fritz Saxl and Gertrud Bing, adhered to the plan to edit and publish the unfinished Bilderatlas (picture atlas) Mnemosyne. While Bing first worked on a new complete edition of Warburg’s published texts in one double-volume, a secretary was typing up Warburg’s unpublished papers, drafts and notes. Saxl and Bing were hoping this would enable them to compile a commentary to each of the Atlas’s panels. In order to help Bing with the edition, in 1935 Saxl hired the young Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich.

1. The “Geburtstagsatlas”, a gift to Aby’s brother, Max M. Warburg for his 70th birthday on 5 June 1937, is the first and only worked-up outcome of Gombrich’s work on the Bilderatlas, acknowledging the family’s continuing support of the project. The Geburtagsatlas, a sample of the edition-to-be, is a scaled down and regularized re-make of some of Warburg’s panels, accompanied by Gombrich’s explanations. Increasingly reluctant, Gombrich carried on with this work until the outbreak of the Second World War, but ultimately judged the Atlas not publishable. The outcome of his extensive study of Warburg’s working papers was Aby Warburg: An intellectual biography (1970), a text that was to become seminal for the reception of Warburg’s achievements, particularly among anglophone scholars.

2. "Tafel XXVII

The astrological fresco cycles in the Palazzo Schifanoja in Ferrara were painted after the Templio Malatestiano. They are a final product of the engagement of the new artistic mindset with the old heritage of the imagery of Antiquity preserved in written sources.

In his examination of the cycle, which finally solved its mystery, Warburg showed how, in this case, a Classical organisational scheme took the place of the – also in Rimini -predominant Medieval scheme. The aforesaid Classical scheme is that of the Latin poet Manilius, who allocated to each of the signs of the Zodiac – i.e. the months of the year - not, as was usual, the seven planets, but the twelve Olympian Gods. They are depicted in the top row. Their depiction follows the literary source to the letter, showing every line that, according to the moralising image descriptions of the Middle Ages (such as the one by Albricus), comprised the image of the deity. Even misunderstandings and mistakes that somehow crept into the surviving text are, as Rougement showed, illustrated in every detail.

Almost no attempt is made to analyse the classical images themselves. The only exception are the Graces that appear behind Venus: their presence and placement follows the demands of the literary tradition, but their figural composition is taken from the famous ancient marble group, which had, itself, inspired the textual tradition.

Venus herself however, is quite a different matter. Here indeed Warburg could speak of a “Lohengrin-atmosphere”. One might also mention Tannhäuser’s Frau Venus. A miniature taken from a contemporary Flemish knightly tale might easily stem from the same milieu. The genre scenes found on the lower row are hence not the children of the planets, but the labours and activities appropriate to each month. Following the traditional calendrical scheme, they can be traced as far back as descriptions in the Encyclopediae of Late Antiquity. The types shown here are, of course, adapted in every detail to the environment familiar to both painter and audience: we see the life of the ordinary people and the court changing with the seasons and years.

The middle row finally provides an unmediated and direct piece of pictorial tradition: the Signs of the Zodiac, each accompanied by its three Decans in the Indian style of Abu Mashar or a related astrological tradition. This is their last appearance on a monumental scale. Their variously monstrous appearances, which in Ferrara had already been tempered by the choice of lists, soon fell out of favour with an artistic perception that sought to robe all cosmological powers in the garb of Ancient Greek beauty"

3. Here, panel 27 of the Geburtagsatlas with Gombrich’s text can be seen alongside Warburg’s panel 27 of the ‘final’ version. The large circular diagram, a scheme of the decoration of the Sala dei Mesi in the Palazzo Schifanoia at Ferrara, was drawn by Mary Warburg. It illustrates her work as an assistant.     

Verknüpfungszwang | Aby Warburg: A Life in Photographs was originally displayed at the Warburg Institute, 3 June - 1 July 2016. The exhibition was curated by Eckart Marchand, Andrew Hewish and Claudia Wedepohl.