The Cathedral of Memory

April 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

This is a dense, dense book.  We’re talking analysis of how the rules for the ancient “art of memory,” applied explicitly for students of rhetoric, gradually evolved in the middle ages into a similar set of rules appearing in scholastic summae as part of the Christian virtue of prudence (remembering virtues and vices in order to prudently avoid eternal hellfire, goes the basic logic).  But things are getting really interesting as Yates ties the art into its potential to unlock some of the mysteries of late medieval and Renaissance art and iconography.  Why are there all those grotesque allegorical figures and personifications of various sins or virtues in the art of this time?  Why are there rows of figures bordering scenes, why such a strange emphasis on kabuki-like gesture and fetishistic rendering of saints’ symbols?  It all jibes eerily well with the rules for the art of memory, which emphasizes the creation of memorable images, and especially human forms, the more grotesque or remarkable the better, in striking poses to aid mnemonic recovery of the figures’ messages.

Anyway, this somewhat fanciful suggestion, specifically, was a total payoff for me:

The high Gothic cathedral, so E. Panofsky has suggested, resembles a scholastic summa in being arranged according to ‘a system of homologous parts and parts of parts.’  The extraordinary thought now arises that if Thomas Aquinas memorised his own Summa through ‘corporeal similitudes’ disposed on places following the order of its parts, the abstract Summa might be corporealised in memory into something like a Gothic cathedral full of images on its ordered places.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat obvious that medieval art and, specifically, the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral, were intended to impart moral lessons and to impress on the memories of their viewers concern for their eternal souls.  On the other hand, it is an amazing to me to think of ideal, glorious, vibrant cathedrals of the mind (of Thomas Aquinas’s mind), with row upon row of stained glass windows depicting all of the virtues, all of the vices, their various epitomes in saints and sinners, their various reminders and lessons and reasons for being.  And dividing these windows, columns carved with allegorical figures identifying each section of the hierarchical medieval scholastic system of knowledge; and on the walls at the front and back of the cathedral, giant scenes of heaven and hell, the reasons for all of this knowledge to exist; the floor, the ceiling, the architecture itself holding meaning.  The artist of memory creating his cathedral, choosing the lighting, building stone by stone the system which will remind constantly of the moral structure of the world, to be recalled for a sermon, a homily, a devotion.

Yates does mention that the art is encouraged in the 14th century and forward as a devotional exercise, which certainly seems more logical to our modern brains, which can’t fathom the practicality of attempting to store so much knowledge in the brain.  This is leading to the hermetic, humanistic, and mystical uses to which the art will be put in the Renaissance.  Things are going to get really interesting.

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