What Emblems Are

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library's collection of over 730 emblem books ranks among the largest and finest emblem book collections world-wide. Its growth since the early 1940s is in the main due to the instigation and foresight of Professor Henri Stegemeier (1912-2001). The collection is described in detail by Thomas McGeary and N. Frederick Nash in their catalog Emblem Books at the University of Illinois (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1993).

Timeframe for emblems as a literary genre

The period in which the Early Modern emblem flourished as a unique literary genre was from 1531, the date of the first emblem book, Emblematum liber by the Italian legal scholar, Andrea Alciatio, until about 1750. The vast majority of these books were published in Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and England, although many were also published in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries.

Definition of a literary emblem

The literary emblem is not just an isolated image, such as that commonly associated with emblematic symbols from heraldry, coats of arms, or popular culture (e.g. the skull and crossbones found on bottles of poison). It is an image with accompanying texts which, taken together as a unit, constitute the emblem. Emblems are either literary emblems (the type found mainly published in books) or applied emblems (emblems found painted on the walls and pulpits of churches or in the interiors of public buildings, such as city halls). Literary emblems are by far the best known, and they far out-number applied emblems. An emblem typically begins with a brief motto that functions as a sort of caption or title, usually interating the chief pithy element of wisdom or philosophy expressed by the emblem. Next comes an image or pictura, usually in the form of a woodcut or copper plate engraving. This pictura graphically portrays an action or element of life that symbolically or literally embodies the theme imparted by the motto. The third and concluding part of the emblem's tripartite structure is its subscriptio - a poem or prose text beneath the pictura that elucidates and/or elaborates on the element of philosophy or message expressed by the motto and the pictura.

dollar emblemAn emblem already familiar to many that draws on ancient symbolism is the "Great Seal of the United States," found on the back of the U.S. dollar bill. Its symbolic pictura features a pyramid and a human eye, over which appears the Latin motto “Annuit Coeptis,” ("He/She [i.e., Providence] approves our undertakings"). Beneath this pictura follows the brief Latin subscriptio, "Novus Ordo Seculorum”("New Order of the World").

The pyramid here is a symbol of human development, and in this case represents the young United States. The pyramid contains thirteen steps (representing the original thirteen states), and has the Roman numerals for 1776 at its base. The implication then is that providence will watch over the young United States, since this emblem was created at the time of the founding of the young nation. The pyramid as a symbol of human development has its roots in freemasonry.

Symbolism and metaphor in emblems

In order to fully understand the meaning of an emblem, a minimal background in such areas as history, religion, and art is helpful, although not always absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, many emblems rest on symbols and metaphors from a wide variety of subjects and sources, e.g.: the Bible (John the Baptist), Classical mythology (Bacchus), fables (Aesop's Hare and the Tortoise), mythology (Cupid shooting his arrows at lovers to ignite their passion), religion (the Sacred Heart of Jesus), nature (the Oak and the Reed), the animal kingdom (spiders, lions), death (memento mori portrayals of the Grim Reaper), historical events, such as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (seventeenth century Protestant emblems sarcastically depicting suppliants kissing the Pope's foot), Freemasonry (the eye atop the pyramid), and even science (the way a crayfish crawls, stellar formations, etc.).

The following example of an emblem with the typical tripartite structure is from Peter Isselburg's Emblemata Politica, Nürnberg: 1617. [Emblem 8].

festina lente

festina lente motto

As is often the case, the motto just above the image is in Latin: "Festina lente", ("Make haste slowly" or "Slowly but surely"). The pictura very simply depicts a turtle being propelled by a sail, which suggests the theme of the motto that through deliberateness (the turtle's trudging along), one can attain speedy results (its propulsion by the sail). The motto together with the pictura was a favorite theme of the ancients up to Aesop and was one of Cosimo Medici's personal imprese. It not, however, until we get to the subscriptio that we realize the full meaning of the entire emblem:

A tortoise, although already creeping slowly along, does not tarry along the way, but rather trudges on industriously, and reaches its goal on time. When something has been successfully brought about, one must have been able to achieve it in a "slowly but surely" fashion.

The notion that pursuing one's way slowly but surely will lead to timely success is indeed the message conveyed by the motto, the pictura, and the subscriptio. The ability to extract the full meaning from emblems thus rests in large part on the reader's familiarity with the symbolism represented in both text and image as well as the literary and artistic sources from whence this symbolism derives. Nonetheless, when "stumped" by a particular emblem, the reader can always turn to a variety of dictionaries of symbolism and metaphor in order to identify which meaning matches which symbol. Occasionally, however, one does encounter emblems whose meanings are based on extremely obscure symbolism, in some cases only to be identified in reference sources dealing with ancient art, literature, and symbolism, such as the Physiologus or Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia.

Publications about emblems and emblem theory

A. Emblem Reference Collection

"Getting Started": a short bibliography of secondary sources dealing with emblems.

A good reference collection of select secondary works dealing with emblems and their interpretation is housed in the Literature and Languages Library (Room 225) of the University Library. This collection "Emblem Reference Collection" can be found at the far west end of the collections. In the main it comprises works of major criticism, e.g. Emblem Theory by Peter Daly; bibliographies; catalogs of notable collections of emblem books; journals and periodicals dealing with emblems, such as Emblematica and Glasgow Emblem Studies, dictionaries of symbols in art and literature, thematic guides to emblems, notably Emblemata by Henkel and Schöne, a few reprints of significant emblem books, and Festschriften in honor of prominent emblem scholars. Other useful reference sources on emblems are housed in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. A few of the reference sources perhaps most useful to the beginning emblem aficionado as well as to the advanced emblem scholar are presented in the following select bibliography:

B. Very Select Bibliography of important works about emblems

1. Emblem Theory

Praz, Mario. Studies in 17th Century Imagery. 2nd edition. Roma: Edizioni Storia e Letteratura, 1964-1974. A very important source that includes critical commentary on emblem books in general and a bibliography of emblem books.

Daly, Peter. Emblem Theory. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: KTO Press, 1979.

Stegemeier, Henri. "Problems in Emblem Literature." Journal of English and Germanic Philology: v. 45, no. 1 (p. 26-37), January, 1946. A ground breaking analysis of the state of emblem scholarship up to 1946. This article places the literary emblem in an historical and a literary context, and it was written before the blossoming of scholarly interest in emblems that did not fully emerge until the 1960s.

2. Subject indexes to emblems

Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts. Herausgegeben von Arthur Henkel und Albrecht Schöne. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1976. Before the recent availability of online indexes to digitized collections of emblem books, this work provided the only widely used thematic index to emblem books.

3. Guides to symbols and metaphors

Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. By James Hall. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1974.

A Dictionary of Symbols. By J.E. Cirlot; translated from the Spanish by Jack Sage. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc., 1971.

4. Journals featuring scholarly articles on emblems and emblem theory

Emblematica. New York. AMS Press. Annual. 1986-

Glasgow Emblem Studies. Glasgow: Dept. of French, University of Glasgow. Annual. 1996-

—Tom Kilton, 7 May 2013