On 9 may, prof. Barbara Baert held the inaugural lecture entitled “Rocks and Tears. Niobe’s Fate as Dynamics of Form” for her Professur der Aby-Warburg-Stiftung 2023.
Publius Ovid (43 BC–17/18 AD) describes in his Metamorphoses Niobe’s transformation into a weeping rock. In this lecture Niobe becomes a paradigm for form and matter, for the dynamics between painting and sculpture, for the energies between life and death, and hence also for the humanist and (neo)classicist aesthetics debate. Aby Warburg also refers to the Niobe motif in one of the panels of his Bilderatlas: Panel 5, Beraubte Mutter. (Niobe, Flucht und Schrecken), displays the images of both the bereaved mother (Niobe) and the murderous mother (Medea). The montage also introduces the theme of the descent into the underworld. It will become clear how the cluster of motifs around the figure of Niobe – hybris, lamentatio and the chthonic substrate – functions as a direct entry to the bipolar hermeneutics of the visual medium. Niobe’s fate incorporates das Auseinandertreten der Pole, polar separation.
The ›weeping rock‹ that, according to legend, still stands on Mount Sipylus in Turkey, draws upon even deeper anthropological patterns. Petrification indicates inertia, frigidity and a Medusan psychosis. In nature, stones and rocks have a ›slumbering insistence‹. Stones are after all visible but impenetrable. Rocks indicate an irrevocable absence in their massive presence, and ›have abode‹ in the otherworldly region. But Niobe’s rock weeps. She combines the paradigm of petrification with that of fluidity. Niobe is a silent tomb and a crying womb at the same time. Niobe, dry and wet, numb and murmuring, embodies the dynamics between form and formless, between silence and sound. Her fate gives expression to das erstarrte Leben.
More information on the Warburg Professur can be found here.