Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections 

VanVeen's Amorum emblemata figuris aeneis incisa

Emblem Books

Description * Highlights * Works Cited * Census of BMC Library Emblem Books

Description & Brief History Ripa's Iconologia

The literary genre of the emblem book was initiated in 1531 with the publication of the Emblematum liber by Andrea Alciato (1492-1550). This book, which was published in over 170 editions, is a collection of up to 212 small pictures accompanied by a short, often cryptic, motto and an explanatory poem; each emblem relates a human moral state to an aspect of nature, an incident from history or an observation on society. Alciato took his inspiration for this book from several sources, including his Latin translation of the Greek Anthology, a collection of late Hellenistic and medieval Christian poetry. Most authors of emblem books follow the three-part structure of image, motto and poem used in the Emblematum liber. However, there are instances of unillustrated emblem books (emblemata nuda), and later editions of many books include extensive scholarly commentary on each emblem. In any of its forms, the emblem book provided its reader with both the pleasure of puzzling over the encoded message and the moral instruction derived from its deciphered meaning.

Jacob Cats Spiegel van den ouden ende nieuvven tijt
The books were especially popular in England, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain through the end of the eighteenth century. Many were tailored to meet the various educational needs of specific religious, professional or social groups. Exegetical emblem books written for Catholics or Protestants reinforced scriptural teachings while asserting their differing views on Christian practice. Other religious emblem books, such as those written by the Jesuits, were intended for use in private meditation and prayer. Emblem books could serve as an aid in the moral education of children, reinforce gender roles, provide ethical guidelines for statesmen or serve as sheer entertainment. Emblem books also provided guidelines for the legible expression of abstract ideas for artists, writers, rhetoriticians, dramatists, pagaent designers and architects. The language thereby established continued to influence these fields even after the books slid into relative obscurity after the eighteenth century.

Luiken's Jezus en de Ziel

During the nineteenth century, emblem books continued to be produced in England, the Netherlands, and the United States, but they were no longer read or produced in most countries. A small revival of scholarly interest in the genre began in mid-nineteenth century England, initiated by the Oxford Movement’s interest in traditional Catholicism, by the Pre-Raphaelite group’s search for a symbolic language of expression, and by individual scholars like the Presbyterian minister and bibliophile Henry Green (1801-1873). New fields of inquiry were opened in the mid-twentieth century when scholars found that complex meanings could be deciphered in previously undecipherable or cryptic literature, paintings or theatrical works if one used a contemporary document, like an emblem book, as a guide.


Montenay's Emblematum christianorum centuria

Highlights from the collection

Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections holds approximately seventy emblem books printed before 1800. The collection includes several editions of Alciato’s Emblematum liber. Some of these include the 1571 commentary by the humanist Claude Mignault (1536-1606). Alciato's intended audience was well-educated and possessed knowledge of classical history, mythology and literature. Other emblem book authors tailored their books to meet the educational needs of specific religious, social or professional groups. Cesare Ripa’s (ca.1555-1622) Iconologia was intended for and widely used by painters, for whom it provided an index of allegorical figures, attributes and gestures. The Iconologia was originally published in 1593, and this collection holds 1613, 1644, 1645, and 1779 editions. Emblem books have been especially crucial in the twentieth century reevaluation of sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch art. The library holds a very early edition of the popular Amorum emblemata (originally published in 1608, the copy in this collection dates from the same year) by Otto van Veen (1556-1629), teacher of the painter Peter Paul Rubens. The work of Jacob Cats (1577-1660) and his prolific follower Jan Luiken (1649-1712) is also present in the collection, including Luiken’s important Protestant emblem books Jezus en de Ziel, originally published in 1678 and Voncken der liefde Jesu, originally published in 1687. Luiken designed and engraved over six hundred pictura in the eleven emblem books he wrote in addition to those he provided for emblem books by other authors. The first Protestant emblem book, Emblemmes, ou, Devises chrestiennes was written by Georgette de Montenay (1540-ca.1581), a Huguenot exile in England. That book was first published in 1571; this collection holds a 1584 edition. Because of the importance of visual imagery to the Counter-Reformation, Catholic emblem books were more numerous than their Protestant counterparts, and the collection also includes several of these. The Imago primi saecvli Societatis Iesu a provincia Flandro-Belgica (originally published in 1640; this collection's copy dates from 1740) represents the Jesuit contribution to the genre, and El sabio instruido de la naturaleza(originally published in 1675; this collection holds a copy of the 1691 edition) is an emblem book by a Spanish member of the Catholic clergy, Francisco Garau (1640-1701) of the Compañia de Iesus.


Works Cited

Campa, Pedro F. Emblemata Hispanica: an annotated bibliography of Spanish emblem literature to the year 1700. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.

Daly, Peter M., ed. The European emblem: Towards an Index Emblematicus. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, c1980.

Landwehr, John. Emblem and Fable Books Printed in the Low Countries, 1542-1813: A Bibliography. Utrecht: HES Publishers, 1988.


by Claire E. Pingel

Web implementation: Jean Lacovera, Marianne Hansen (
Last updated June 13, 2001.