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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Greek: Emblemata
Latin: Parerga
French: Emblemes

Authorities:   Alciato, Contile, Estienne, Gracian, Ruscelli, Tesauro

(What is this?)

Emblem comes from the Greek emballo meaning to throw in and then by derivation to inlay.

The word was widely known and used in the classical period and later and its earliest use was quite specific. It referred to a type of decorative metal work in which pieces of gold and silver were inlaid on precious objects. Often these pieces were removable and reusable and Pliny writing in the first century AD mentions a piece which showed the theft of the Palladium, part of the myth of the siege of Troy. By later classical times the meaning had widened to include any inlaid decorative work including mosaic which became one of the principal art forms of the ancient world and the Middle Ages. St. Augustine used the metaphor of mosaic on several occasions to illustrate how the universe was a composition of many different elements and the beauty of the whole could only be appreciated when the all the pieces were fitted together. It is clear from the fact that there was a body of Roman law which dealt with the penalties for the dismantling and theft of inlaid pieces of precious metal that the original use of emblems was widespread. Nevertheless, Pliny declared that the practice had already become obsolete by his own time, no doubt because of the extreme expense of the materials.

The emblem was the final and most popular of all the literary symbolic species. Contemporaries saw the device as a superior form to the emblem since the meaning of the device with its two elements was more difficult to decipher than the emblem which typically had three but the emblem was far more popular and long lasting. It is estimated that more than 6,500 separate titles and editions of the same title have been published from the time of the first emblem book, the Emblemata of Alciato of 1531, up to the 20th century. Within this huge corpus there were many subgenres and amongst those there were naturally developments and changes over the years. Differences evolved between the emblem books of different European countries.

The Dutch were renowned for emblems of love, a trend which began with secular eroticism and was then transformed into themes of devotional Christianity. The Spanish subsumed the emblem book as part of the Sigla D’oro, The Golden Age, of Spanish literature from about 1550 to 1700. The Jesuits adopted the genre in the middle of the 16th Century as a weapon in their determined campaign to restore the vigor of the Catholic church after the Council of Trent. Approximately one thousand seven hundred emblem books by Jesuit writers have been identified. Another subgenre included musical compositions to be sung or played as an element of each emblem. Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens had an original musical composition which accompanied each of his emblems.

The popularity of the emblem was in part due to its general nature. It could use any motif and embody any spiritual or moral meaning. According to Estienne, the emblem was ‘a sweet and morall symbol which consists of pictures and words, by which some weighty sentence is declared’. Tesauro makes the same general definition. He describes the emblem as ‘a popular symbol composed of figures and words signifying by means of a motif any theme belonging to human life.’

See also: Devices