Ars Memoria

Many times we relegate those things that we hold in our memory as artifacts of a past time. We rarely give those images their due. The literalism that is such a part of the American culture, hinders one’s ability to allow the imagination the freedom and spontaneity that it yearns for. This part of our own personal history, we do not take seriously. But as artist, shouldn’t we?

Henry Corbin always insisted history is in the soul, “History making is a musing, poetic process…proceeding as an autonomous, archetypal activity, presenting us with tales as if they were facts. And we cannot transcend history not because we cannot get out of time or escape the past, but because we are always in the soul and subject to its musings.” (As quoted in, Noel Cobb’s, Archetypal Imagination, p.204)

There was a time prior to the twentieth century when imagination and memory were seen as one and the same thing, Ars Memoria. Memoria was the old term for both. It included the idea of memory, imagination, the unconscious and reverie. James Hillman writes, “Memoria was described as a great hall, a storehouse, a theatre packed with images. And the only difference between remembering and imagining was the memory images were those to which a sense of time had been added, that curious conviction that they had once happened.”(Hillman, Healing Fiction, p.41)

My favorite poet, Baudelaire, built his theory of “correspondence” on ars memoria. The imagination is activated by nature provoking the memory and drawing forth correspondences between our own latent memories or the unconscious and images presented before the mind of the poet/artist. Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences”,

Nature is but a temple whose living colonnades

Breath forth a mystic speech in fitful sighs;

Man wanders among symbols in those glades

Where all things watch him with familiar eyes.


Like dwindling echoes gathered far away

Into a deep and thronging unison

Huge as night or as the light of day,

All scents and sounds and colors meet as one…

Dream and reverie (a conscious dream) also invokes the ars memoria, allowing the musing mind, “sudden wellings up, epiphanies of images, incursions of things undreamt of, sources of hidden insight and exhilarating inspiration.” (Ibid.,p.208) In Ancient Greek mythology, the figure of Mnemosyne, mother of the muses, is identified with memory and the imagination, the basis of all creative endeavors. Carl Kerenyi says of her, “She is memory as the cosmic ground of self-recalling which, like an eternal spring, never ceases flowing.” Reverie connects one to that storehouse of images just as nature can aid in this process of “self-recalling”.

The Irish poet, W.B. Yeats found that symbols had a similar effect on connecting the imagination to memory. In an essay on magic, Yeats describes three doctrines which he believed were handed down from ancient times and are the foundation of nearly all magical practices. “First, that the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another and create or reveal a single mind. Secondly, That the borders of our memories are shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of nature herself. Thirdly, that this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.” (Cobb,p.220) Symbols touch a part of ourselves that is hidden and draws forth from that dark and hidden place memories, unconscious emotions and images that activate the imagination. In such a state the artist finds that there are latent memories and images that are constantly residing right below the surface of consciousness and are archetypal, in that their significance can be felt by all. This storehouse of images- scents and sounds is accessed through nature, reverie and symbols and through this  “self-recalling,” the mother of the muses becomes our guide. As an artist, she is the one I desire most to accompany me.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “Ars Memoria”

  1. Was the Ars Memoria written by Giordano Bruno? I think Ted Hughes wrote an article about using it in poetry.

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