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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Authority: Mathiolus

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From the Latin herba meaning herb or plant.

     As with many of the other symbolic species, the herbals combined literal and symbolic elements. Some classical writers, of which the earliest (although his work is now lost) was probably Aristotle, had made empirical observations of plants and their medicinal properties. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus wrote an Enquiry into Plants; this was probably derived from Aristotle’s works and was yet another classical work which was reintroduced to the West by Muslim scholars in the 13th century. The most important source for the Middle Ages was however Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica written in the 1st century AD which describes the properties and symbolic nature of 500 plants. It was this book on which Mathiolus wrote his famous commentary published in 1554 which is also reckoned by some to be the first modern book on botany although it is still expressed in allegorical and symbolic terms.

     Christian writers had already taken over the tradition as part of the universal concept that all nature was created by and reflected aspects of God. The herbal was one expression of the Book of Nature which with the Scriptures was the means of approaching and understanding the nature of God. Herbals thus embodied and perpetuated this dual tradition of both symbolism and empiricism which persisted throughout the period and which was also illustrated by the bestiaries and the lapidaries.

     During the medieval period the herbal tradition persisted either in stand-alone treatises or as part of the great encyclopedias of the age. Examples are the Hexamaeron of St. Ambrose, the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville and the De Universo of Hrabanus Maurus. In the late Renaissance, there were also emblem books which specifically addressed the symbolism of plants and trees such as the Emblemata of Alciato which in later editions contained a section on the symbolism of trees.

See also: Bestiaries, Lapidaries