Aby Warburg and cultures of religion

The Hamburg art and cultural historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) is not only the founder of the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KBW), but also a key contributor to research in many disciplines of the humanities and cultural studies up to this day. He has repeatedly pointed out how important the study of religions is for the understanding of cultural-historical contexts. Anyone who wants to gain deeper insights into the symbolic forms and cultural traditions in text and image as well as into the course of their »wandering routes« (Wanderstrassen) must be interested in what has been created within the religions and their »devotional and intellectual space« since the primordial times of the primitive »Greifmensch« (as he called him).

Warburg wanted to »improve the method of cultural studies by linking art history and religious studies«, as he explained in his essay on Luther and astrology shortly after the First World War. In doing so, he asserted the simultaneity of symbolic and affect-historical traditions with which primitive-indigenous, pagan-antique and the ancient Mediterranean cultures of religion have shaped the history of European pictorial memory. From this, pathos formulas emerged, stereotypical gestures that express the highest suffering, but also burning passion (both are meanings of pathos).

The present research project is not about a theology or history of faith, but about a cultural history with recourse to pictorial and religious questions. Not what is known or preached in church, synagogue, mosque is to be examined, but in which pictorial and medial, rhetorical and textual forms this happened in each case, admittedly not in general, but focused on material, practices, materials which Warburg dealt with in his projects. Less interesting is what place he himself ascribed to the respective cultures of religion in his sketches of a history of human development. There he largely followed the mainstream of his time. But in figures such as those of multiple layers and superimposition, as well as in the thought image of Nachleben (which creates its own predecessors), this conventionality is dynamized and broken up. It is less the Warburg of philologists than that of surrealists that is analyzed in this research project, albeit often with methods from the history of concepts and religions.

The position, function, significance of cultures of religion and their aftermath in Warburg’s writings published during his lifetime as well as in his posthumous manuscripts and records, in his rich correspondence, in diaries and card indexes (Zettelkästen) are closely examined. Finally his idea of the KBW not as a mere collection of books but as machine à penser is duly considered. The research project aims at going beyond closer Warburg research. It wants to open up insights into the »laboratory of visual history in cultural studies« (Luther essay) and to set a new accent in international cultural studies research.

Fig. above: Aby Warburg’s picture atlas Mnemosyne. The panels in the reading room of the KBW, autumn 1929. © Warburg Institute London

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2018–2019
Head researcher(s): Martin Treml


See also:
ZfL project Aby Warburg: Volume of Works (Edition) (2008–2009)


11 May 2019 · 9.30 am

Martin Treml: Passio als Leid und Leidenschaft. Aby Warburgs Bilderatlas

Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, Ammerländer Heerstraße 114-118, 26129 Oldenburg, A14 1-111 (Senatssitzungssaal)

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06 May 2019 · 6.00 pm

Martin Treml: »Meine dreckigen Götter«. Sigmund Freuds Psychoanalyse und das Nachleben der Religionskulturen

IFK Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften | Kunstuniversität Linz in Wien, Reichsratsstr. 17, 1010 Wien (Österreich)

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24 Apr 2019 · 7.30 pm

Martin Treml: Erich Auerbach und die Religionskultur

Karl Jaspers-Haus, Unter den Eichen 22, 26122 Oldenburg

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Workshop with Martin Treml
30 Nov 2018 · 1.00 pm

Kulturtheorie und die Analyse von Religionskulturen

Universität Wien, Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft, Hofburg Batthyanystiege, 1010 Wien (1. Stock), Jura-Soyfer-Saal

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11 Jan 2018 · 6.00 pm

Martin Treml: Moria, Golgatha, Mekka. Zum Sohnesopfer in Judentum, Christentum, Islam

Freie Universität Berlin, Holzlaube, Fabeckstraße 23–25, 14195 Berlin, Raum 2.2063

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