Attributes in Paintings May Stem from Mnemotechnics Dating from Ancient Greece

As I delve further into the ancient history of mnemonics and mnemotechnics, I  strongly suspect that attributes in paintings (like those frequently seen in depictions of Christian saints) originally stem from memory techniques that date from Simonides of Ceos (Σιμωνίδης ὁ Κεῖος; c. 556 – 468 BCE) and potentially earlier by means of the oral tradition.

The National Gallery has a short little primer on paintings of saints and recognizing them by means of their attributes. As an example, in the painting below Saint Genevieve of Paris holds the candle which she miraculously relit. On the brooch at her neck are the alpha and omega signs. Saint Apollonia of Alexandria’s brooch shows pincers: she was tortured by having her teeth extracted.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472 - 1553 Saints Genevieve and Apollonia 1506 Oil on lime, 120.5 x 63 cm Bought, 1987 NG6511.1 This painting is part of the group: 'The St Catherine Altarpiece: Reverses of Shutters' (NG6511.1-NG6511.2)
Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1472 – 1553
Saints Genevieve and Apollonia (1506) Oil on lime, 120.5 x 63 cm
Bought, 1987; NG6511.1
This painting is part of the group: ‘The St Catherine Altarpiece: Reverses of Shutters’ (NG6511.1-NG6511.2)

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

12 thoughts on “Attributes in Paintings May Stem from Mnemotechnics Dating from Ancient Greece”

  1. Nodas says:

    Hi Chris Aldrich. Interesting approach.
    Yes, there are many hidden, arcane
    and cryptic notions in many artifacts of medieval Art.

    By the way since I’m Greek (born/raised/living),
    we just spell Simonides as Σιμωνίδης o Κείος.
    “Σιμωνίδης ὁ Κεῖος” is not a name written in Ancient Greek but a form of Modern Greek using the old Polytonic system (which was abandoned in late 1970’s.)
    (basic polytons= oksia/οξεία, psily/ψιλή, perispomeni/περισπωμένη and some more)

    Ask any Classical scholar about this, and he’ll say that in Ancient Greece they would write his name in inscriptions as:
    “ΣΙΜΟΝΙΔΗΣΟΚΕΙΟΣ ” because they neither used spaces nor small letters.

    So, it was all capitalised. This may seem familiar from the 3 inscriptions in the Rosetta Stone. (Hieroglyphic/ Demotic Egyptian/ Capital Greek). The last bottom section of Rosetta Stone is capitalised Classical Ancient Greek.

    Latin, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Old Germanic(or Gothic) and Old English languages , are often very important in order to decipher some cryptic medieval European messages.
    Those were probably the 5 main Linguae Francae (“main languages”) in the Ancient and Medieval Western World.

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  2. metivier says:

    It is certainly the case that paintings are encoded with all kinds of memory prompts. But how do you see this stemming from Simonides?

    In my research, one of the earliest uses of location-based mnemonics is in Buddhist meditation rituals, also in proto-yoga. They would use parts of the temple to recall parts of certain meditations, not dissimilar to the stations of the cross, but with eyes closed.

    The Judeo-Christian tradition also has all kinds of literary and visual topology and we’ve always been good as readers with visualizing literary landscapes. It’s kind of amazing that early cinema took so long to catch up with the geographical basics of the novel.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love the Simonides story, but it’s overemphasized as the origin of using location to assist memory.

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  3. Nodas says:

    The oriential memory approach may have existed since Ming dynasties, 45 centuries ago. But the orientals did not really left a very detailed, rigorous science of memory. Buddha is supposed to be the Enlightened one. But his adherents forgot to leave many “enlightening” details on the art of remembering.

    Hence, the Simonides tale is correctly overemphasized, because he made a total Paradigm Shift for the future millenia of mnemonics. Someone had to be first, in the areas of rigorous scientific discovery. And in the areas of mnemonics in particular it was the Greco-Roman intelligentsia to break through first. That’s known history.

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