Goddess of the Week: Mnemosyne (memory)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Mnemosyne (The Lamp of Memory, or Ricordanza) (c 1876-1881), oil on canvas, 120.7 x 58.4 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

The goddess Mnemosyne (Μνημοσύνη), or the Roman equivalent Moneta, is usually considered to be one of the early deities, the daughter of Uranus (Sky) and Gaia (Earth), making her one of the Titans, a Titanide if you prefer it gendered. She is the personification of memory and remembrance, and is important for being the mother of the Muses. As their mother, she acted as their head and controller, and as such gave powers of authoritative speech to Kings and poets alike.

Artist not known, Antioch Mosaics (c 100-400 CE), mosaic, dimensions not known, excavated at Antioch, Turkey, now in Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. Image by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mnemosyne appears only occasionally in visual art, and most usually in company with her daughters, as shown in this beautiful section of mosaic from Antioch in Turkey, which dates from about 100-400 CE. Thankfully its artist has followed the tradition of labelling the figures, showing the goddess as the distinguished-looking woman at the back, to the right.

Zeus (Jupiter), already at this stage the leader of the primordial deities, sleeps with Mnemosyne on nine successive nights to make her pregnant with the nine Muses.

Marco Liberi (1640–1685), Jupiter and Mnemosyne (c 1670), oil on canvas, 118 x 153 cm, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

Marco Liberi’s Jupiter and Mnemosyne (c 1670) shows Zeus, in his usual guise as a dark brown eagle, forcing himself upon a naked Mnemosyne, who is not given any marks of distinction. Additionally, most accounts (including Ovid’s brief mention in his Metamorphoses) make it clear that Zeus disguised himself as a shepherd for his liaison with Mnemosyne.

Jacob de Wit (1695–1754), Jupiter and Mnemosyne (1727), oil on canvas, 240 x 205 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob de Wit’s Jupiter and Mnemosyne from 1727 shows this more faithfully: the eagle, complete with a small stock of thunderbolts, now keeping station above the couple, who have the (im)moral support of three cupids and a spectating couple in the trees at the right.

Artist not known, Statue of Mnemosyne (date not known), memorial to lives lost in World War I, Bell Block, New Plymouth, New Zealand. Image by kiwinz, via Wikimedia Commons.

In more modern times, Mnemosyne has been used as the personification of memory, here with a lyre in a war memorial in New Zealand.

But for me the most interesting of the few paintings of Mnemosyne is that by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Mnemosyne (The Lamp of Memory, or Ricordanza) (c 1876-1881), oil on canvas, 120.7 x 58.4 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

His Mnemosyne, also known as The Lamp of Memory, or Ricordanza (c 1876-1881), took around five years to complete. It is a reworking of an earlier painting, Venus Astarte, for which his model was Jane Morris (née Burden), the wife of the designer, artist and poet William Morris (1834-1896). At the time, Rossetti saw Jane Morris as his muse, and was quite infatuated with her.

Rossetti inscribed two lines of his own poetry (not known from any other source) on the frame:
Thou fill’st from the winged chalice of the soul
Thy lamp, O Memory, fire-winged to its goal.

Whereas Jane Morris elsewhere usually has a sultry beauty, here she stares, her face blank and empty of emotion. In her right hand, she holds what is intended to be a small light, and in her left she holds an ornate oil lantern. By that is a single pansy flower, a symbol of remembrance, and a sprig of yew with a couple of berries – an ancient associate for protection against evil, and for connecting to the past. Those attributes are entirely post-classical, and probably the product of Rossetti’s making.

Rossetti dated the painting 1881, the year that he sold it. The following April, he was dead, his body destroyed by his addiction to chloral, and the whisky he drank to accompany it.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), Memory (1870), oil on panel, 51.6 x 37.5 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

Elihu Vedder’s remarkable painting of Memory (1870) is one of the earliest Symbolist images made by an American artist. Its origins are probably in sketches which Vedder made in 1866 and 1867. The earlier of those was a response to Tennyson’s poem Break, Break, Break (1842), in which he ponders the memory of loved ones when contemplating the sea – which is exactly what Vedder shows here. The crisp realism of the waves and beach contrast with the soft vagueness of the face in the clouds.

The remaining paintings I have of Mnemosyne show her in the company of her daughters.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), Nine Muses (E&I 199) (c 1578), oil on canvas, 206.7 x 309.8, The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, Windsor, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1578, perhaps extending into the following year, Tintoretto painted a series of six mythological works, in a break from his long series of religious scenes and portraits. The first of these was probably the Nine Muses for the Palazzo Ducale not in Venice, but in Mantua, and now in the Royal Collection of the UK. This is unusually inscribed at the lower left corner. The vanishing point in its sky contains a tenth woman’s head, that of their mother, Mnemosyne.

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), Parnassus (sketch for a fresco) (c 1760), oil on panel, 55 x 101 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The most thorough account of Mnemosyne before the nineteenth century is that of Anton Raphael Mengs. This is his Parnassus, a highly-finished sketch for a fresco shown below, which he painted in about 1760. Standing in the centre is not Zeus, the father of the Muses, but Apollo, complete with his lyre and laurel wreaths, used to crown those who became accomplished thanks to the Muses.

To the left of Apollo is Mnemosyne herself, with a dark blue skirt, who is pointing towards a small spring in front of Apollo’s feet. The other women are Mnemosyne’s daughters, each with symbols to identify them.

The puzzling figure is lurking in the shadows behind Apollo’s legs: possibly a river god, responsible for the origin of the water. There is also an Orphic tradition in which the River Mnemosyne is the source of water to bring inspiration, and this is perhaps an allusion to that obscure sub-narrative.

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), Apollo, Mnemosyne, and the Nine Muses (1761), fresco, 313 × 580 cm, Gallery of the Villa Albani-Torlonia, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

This is the finished fresco, known as Apollo, Mnemosyne, and the Nine Muses which Mengs painted in 1761 in the Villa Albani-Torlonia in Rome.

Her name lives on through related Greek words which give us mnemonic.