home authors books contributors books for sale links
The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

Support the Library!
Buy your books here.

Find On Worldcat
Find On This Site


The word is believed to derive from the Greek telesma meaning perfection (see for instance Menestrier 1694 255).

     One of the most enduring and widespread features of the age of symbolism was the use of amulets, decorative devices worn to protect against disease, evil spirits or just plain bad luck. Thousands of types of amulet are known and their use has persisted throughout all western history going right back to the fourth millennium BC in early Egypt. Some of the early classical uses of amulets were described in a 2nd century AD treatise, the Kyranides, compiled by one Harpocration. One of the most common symbols on an amulet in the late Middle Ages was the Greek letter T or tau. This had a complex ancestry being featured in the typology of the Biblia Pauperum, the Bible of the Poor, which was commonly used in the late Middle Ages as a guide to the symbolism of the scriptures. God had commanded Moses to hang a brazen serpent on a tree so that anyone who looked at it would be saved from the bite of real serpents (Numbers xxi, 9). This was used as the type for the crucifixion itself: anyone who looked for Jesus at the moment of His ultimate sacrifice would be saved from that serpent, the Devil.

A pest-thaler. An illustration from C-F. Menestrier's Images Enigmatiques of 1694.
A pest-thaler. An illustration from C-F. Menestrier's Images Enigmatiques of 1694.

     The tau symbolized the tree of Moses and this amulet was particularly believed effective at that moment of ultimate need, in times of plague. In the late Middle Ages, German coins called pest-thalers, inscribed with the tau, were issued and used as necklaces for personal protection. The brazen serpent was adopted by Melancthon, the Protestant theologian, as a personal symbol.

     The church had condemned the use of amulets but allowed specifically Christian symbols, in particular, relics and medals. Medals with the names and images of saints were commonly worn (and still are): St. Benedict was proof against fevers, St. Valentine against epilepsy and St. George was a comfort and protection for travelers as was St. Christopher.

See also: Reverses