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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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The etymology of motto and the French word mot, word, is from the Latin muttire, to mutter or murmur.

     The motto is an integral part of the emblem, the device, the coat of arms and other symbolic species. With its origin as ‘word’, the prime utterance of God, His creative mechanism (John 1, 1), the moment of origin of culture and society, it is not surprising that motto should have a special place in symbolic systems. It is possible that its use in heraldic arms originated as the war-cry of the holder in battle This is apparently the case with the motto of the English sovereign Dieu et mon droit, God and my right, supposedly derived from the war-cry used by the English forces at the Battle of Crecy against the French in 1346 since the English claimed that their king was entitled to the throne of France. In Scottish arms, the motto is called the slogan which does derive directly from the Gaelic for war cry, ‘slogorn’. Slogan is also used in French for motto.

     In his Discorso or introduction to Giovio’s Dialogo del’imprese of 1556 Girolamo Ruscelli advises that the motto should be short and in the vernacular except in Italy and Spain where it could be assured that Latin would be understood.(Caldwell 36). It is not evident that this advice was followed; in most European countries Latin mottoes were the norm. De Bustamante gives the origin of some 20,000 mottos which form part of devices and emblems. He comments that a large number of these derive from the works of Virgil and perhaps are evidence of the popularity of the Sortes Virgiliana, the Virgilian Fates. (See Divinations)

     Another element in the history of the motto was the titulus which in this context was the title or explanation for a religious picture or stained glass window. From the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, pictures, sculpture and glass displayed in churches and the great cathedrals had become acceptable to the religious authorities as ‘the literature of the laity.’ The function of the tituli as explanatory notes for these images was duplicated in the Renaissance emblem and device where all the elements of the symbol could be employed in the process of interpretation.

     Some Renaissance authorities used the French word cimier for motto. Cimier is now usually translated in French as crest in the sense of a crest used over a helmet on a coat of arms. In many cases the crest also had a motto placed over it and this was viewed as a separate symbolic species.  

See also: Arms, Devices, Emblems