Emblemata: An Iconographic Overflowing

The emblematic world view, a modern term for the ways in which late medieval and Renaissance scholars saw the intertextuality and symbolic elements of the natural world, was popularized among historians of science by William B. Ashworth in his essay “Natural History and the Emblematic World View”. Here, he attempted to ascribe the fall of the emblematic world view near the end of the 16th century to its inability to account for certain aspects of human experience, such as the discovery of the new world, or the discovery of a new kind of history. While these factors most likely played a part in its decline, this explanation closes the door on several important considerations that would apply to other kinds of taxonomies as well.

Perhaps the decline of the emblematic world view was caused by a mechanism which was not particular to it alone. It is possible to imagine that when those working within a specific method of taxonomic interpretation come to feel that it has no end in sight, through either its increasing age and complexity, or when it finds itself presented with an abundance of intermediary forms or anomalies, the general body of its adherents could begin to grow disillusioned with the hope that that method of interpretation would lead to a kind of conclusive knowledge. In this instance, then it would seem that knowledge is only truly accepted as knowledge if it is believed to have an end.  This can apply to both its purpose and its progression to some ultimate goal. Conversely, the rise of the literal view of natural science wiped the slate clean, so to speak, giving early modern natural scientists a new hope for an exhaustible source of knowledge through observation. The seat of authority for this new standard of knowledge could be attributed to its ability to be reproduced numerous times, something to which the previously inexhaustible emblematic system of knowledge had less of a claim.

Conrad Gessner memorial at the Old Botanical Garden, Zürich

As Ashworth points out, the essence of the emblematic world view “is the belief that every kind of thing in the cosmos has myriad hidden meanings and that knowledge consists of an attempt to comprehend as many of these as possible”.  Furthermore, these hidden meanings are connected symbolically to other things in the cosmos, making it necessary to be constantly searching for the interconnectedness of as many signs and symbols as possible. For example, Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), in his zoological encyclopaedia History of Animals, includes an exhaustive study of the signs and symbols associated with the animals under discussion because he “believed that to know the peacock [or any other thing] you must know its associations”. It would be fair to say that Gesner was not doing this because he was uncritical or obtuse, but because emblematic knowledge required such exhaustive measures in order to have the complete picture of the natural world.

Two things are at first noticeable from this account. Firstly, emblems make their ultimate appeal to be representative of reality through their meanings in relation to their parts and to each other. As Ashworth states: “In the ideal emblem, each element was necessary, but not sufficient, for comprehension”. Sometimes they point to God for authority, sometimes they point to the ancients, but they always demand that the reader return back to the structure in which they are presented, namely, each other. For example, a creature such as the bee could be understood in a variety of ways depending upon what other symbols were placed alongside it. In one English emblem they are a symbol of prosperity in peace: “Which doth declare, the blessed fruites of peace, / How sweete shee is, when mortall warres doe cease”, or in one German emblem it could be said to be a symbol of a well-ordered society. These two emblems taken together could then indicate that a well-ordered society is one that is benefiting from the fruits of peace. In such a way the emblems could be built upon each other to create more complex layers of meaning. Furthermore, because these meanings are hidden, they are necessarily subject to diverse interpretations.

When combined with the removal of any sort of earthly authority over the interpretation of the nature of symbols, this trend allowed a wide proliferation of emblems with a variety of meanings. Indeed, God himself could be understood as the ultimate emblem maker. In Huston Diehl’s article “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England” he points to two different emblem maker’s opposite assessments of the meaning of the same biblical brass serpent: “the image of the brass serpent, […] is neither inherently good or bad. Rather, what the viewer makes of the image, how he uses it, determines whether it is an idol to be condemned or a sign to be remembered”. Fundamentally, the emblem book asked the reader to interpret it and to see as many relations as one can, both among the emblems themselves and in the natural world.

This is further seen in the intentions of their original maker, Andrea Alciati, who wanted to “devise epigrams that were especially enigmatic, so that the readers would get a sudden and pleasing illumination when they figured them out”. Yet their being enigmatic would only add to the multiplicity of meanings that were derived from them. The emblem books could be open to such a wide array of interpretations because nature was seen to work through correspondences and patterns which were directly related to the understanding of human beings.

“Mind, not outward form, prevails.”

This extreme multiplicity of symbolic interpretation makes itself apparent if we examine one of the most theologically understood animals in the emblematic world view. The generally accepted symbolic role of the Pelican in the moral language of the Middle Ages was that its act of self sacrifice for the sake of its young reflected Christ’s sacrificing himself for all mankind. As it says in the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: “There are different versions of this emblem, but the pelican is always shown pecking open its breast to allow the young to feed on its own blood. […] the pelican represents Christ’s mercy”. With a precursory glance at some of the examples of pelican symbolism, however, we see the self-sacrifice of the pelican go through a number of transformations.

As per the generally accepted symbolism there are those, like the example from the Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution, which show the Christian importance of the pelican. However, there were many associations drawn from the pelican other than this interpretive norm. The pelican, it seems, can also serve as a symbol of the king who sacrifices himself for his people in emulation of Christ. While this is not too far from the generally accepted iconography of the pelican there are others that diverge significantly from this symbolic norm. One emblem in particular “Pelikan baut sein Nest auf dem Boden” Pelican: builds its nest on the ground. This diverges from almost every other pelican emblem, only preserving the nest in its symbolism. Rather than espousing the virtues of self-sacrifice, as even the more secular emblems of its kind tend to, it warns against hubris, citing the placement of the pelican’s nest (which itself varies from emblem to emblem). Furthermore, this warning against arrogance is also reincorporated in another pelican emblem that depicts a mother holding her infant carelessly above the ground by one leg, while the pelican in the foreground moves to protect its young from their flaming nest. It condemns mothers who hold their own well being above that of their children. The nest in this emblem is also, incidentally, placed on the ground. It is no wonder then, that when Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) tried to make an encyclopaedia of the emblematic knowledge of his time, he did not finish until he had compiled thirteen massive folios on the subject. As Ashworth states: “It is one thing to talk about a ‘web of associations’; it is much more impressive to see this web laid out, strand by strand, as Aldrovandi does”. What allowed this massive swelling of emblematic knowledge was in part the extreme fluidity of meanings, which was shown to be the case with the pelican example above.

If the rise of the emblematic interpretation of the world first seemed to correspond with the Protestant Reformation, it would be that same Reformation that would set up the conditions for its downfall. As Peter Harrison discusses in his work The Bible Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science: “The demise of allegory […] was due largely to the efforts of Protestant reformers, who in their search for an unambiguous religious authority, insisted that the book of scripture be interpreted only in its literal, historical sense”. This search for an unambiguous authority worked its way into all forms of knowledge both sacred and secular, and was the start of a process that would spell the end of the emblematic world view.

“To insist now that texts be read literally” writes Harrison, “was to cut short a potentially endless chain of references in which words referred to things, and things in turn referred to other things”. The Protestant reformers, in their efforts for a single textual authority with a fixed meaning and unambiguous understanding, could not coexist with a view in which there was no one textual authority, no fixed meanings and that thrived on these very ambiguities. The Bible needed to be the only authority on matters of religious doctrine and thus it would necessarily be interpreted in such a way so as to remove all doubts and ambiguities. “Only a literal method, or more strictly a method which allowed but a single meaning to be assigned to each passage of scripture, could serve this purpose”. When taken into the realm of natural science this approach was incompatible with views based on ancient authorities or traditional symbolism. Interpretations of natural entities could no longer look to each other for their justifications, but could only appeal to the final authority left in the literal world: the senses. More than any other force, the disillusionment with the possibility of a set end to the emblematic understanding of nature served to discredit the possibility that meaning could serve as any solid basis for knowledge, for as a product of human convention it had no end but itself. This threw the entire view that meaning was the measure of knowledge into question, and helped set the stage for a view of observable truths to take its place. As Harrison writes:

A disturbing implication of this development was that the purportedly natural representative functions of living things were in fact merely conventional, that the things bore no universal, God-given, significance, but instead had been arbitrarily given meaning by human agents.

It is important here to note the difference in language used to describe what constituted knowledge in the emblematic and literal world views. When discussing the knowledge of the emblematic world Ashworth does not mention the word “truth” until he arrives at Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) attempt to demystify the symbolic associations of several animals in his section entitled: “Browne and the quest for truth in natural history”. In this section Ashworth recounts how Browne held the emblematic account of animals to the test of repeatable experimentation and observations, as he says about one of his works: “in the Pseudodoxia [Epidemica], Browne asks the remarkable questions: Are these stories true? Can they be demonstrated?” In this section Ashworth implies, if he does not state, that the measure of knowledge in the emblematic view is not truth, but meaning.

These two concepts are also paired off against each other in Harrison’s account, in which he describes St. Augustine’s focus on spiritual truths (the theological meaning beyond the literal sense of a text) as being elevated at the cost of literal interpretations. Mapping St. Augustine’s approach to scripture onto accounts of the natural world, he goes on to argue how the meaning of the “spiritual truth” undermines the truth of the literal interpretation of the natural world. What is perhaps more interesting, in a later section Harrison goes on to describe how Thomas Browne sought to demystify the mythological representations of animals. He did this with an account based on observations that explained where the mistaken belief about the animal’s behaviours may have come from. This shows a reversal of St. Augustine’s original evaluation in which the meaning is actually a misinterpretation of the truth of a particular creature. As Harrison states: “Thomas Browne, for example, suggested that the allegory of the pelican might have arisen from observations of the birds scratching their breasts during preening, and drawing blood”. This is the exact opposite of the earlier accounts of the natural world and is evident in the word choice of “meaning” as opposed to “truth”, a distinction that arguably did not exist until the rise of the literal view. Thus it could be summarized that meanings are variable, of uncertain authority, and potentially endless in their permutations, whereas truths as seen to be pinnacle of certainty, appealing to one firmly established authority and above all a limited number of viable permutations. In the decline of the emblematic world view a new concept of “truth” had displaced “meaning” in providing the conceptual framework under which nature was studied.

John Ray (1627-1705), in his preference to The Ornithology of Francis Willughby states that the chief error of previous natural philosophers trying to document the physical world was that they multiplied, unnecessarily, the number of species. This new focus on facts above meanings also necessitated a different ordering principle than that which had dominated the emblematic world view.  Harrison states that even with the emergence of Baconian empiricism, there was no set structure guiding observational knowledge: “Physical collections of objects bear witness to the same taxonomic anarchy […]. Vast amounts of new data might have been accumulated, but in the absence of an alternative conception of natural order, these could not constitute a new science”. What provided this order in the case of the literal world view was both the thesis, or hypothesis, and the developing science of taxonomy. As Harrison notes: “An overarching ordering principle is conspicuously absent in critical and constructive humanist works on natural history”, though arguably this lack of an overarching principle was part of the point of the humanist approach to knowledge, it does provide a key insight into the differences and similarities of the two. The emblematic world view could not have a thesis because that would require some end to the process of associations; it could not have a taxonomy based on the smallest parts of animals because its form of knowledge was based on building them up in associations, rather than breaking them down. In comparison, the literal world view needed a thesis and a set taxonomical language around which to structure it as its ordering principle to some observable end.

Thus the need for some set thesis led to the new pressure to develop a uniform taxonomy of the natural world, so that it could be discussed in definite terms that allowed for conclusive answers. Ray, commenting on his deceased colleague Willughby describes in his work the mentality that would be necessary to develop such a taxonomy:

Now that he might clear up all these obscurities, and render the knowledge and distinction of Species facile to all that should come after, he bent his endeavours mainly to find out […] certain Characteristic notes of each kind. But if in any kind no singular mark occurred whereby it might be certainly distinguished from all others, he did minutely and exactly describe all its parts, that at least a Collection of many accidents, which all together could not be found in any Species else of the same kind, might serve for a Characteristic.

At first glance this method could be seen as being similar to the “taxonomic anarchy” of the emblematic world view. However, one must keep in mind that the reason why such exhaustive detail was needed was to fulfill the set task of ready identification and separation of species, instead of the more general task of “accumulating vast amounts of new data”. Furthermore, we see that this massive accumulation works downwards to more minute details, rather than upwards to more complex meanings. Harrison argues that this taxonomical process is the offspring of the attempt to find a universal language capable of filling the gap left by the death of the emblematic world view. As he states:

[N]o-one thought any longer that such universal languages would somehow unlock the secrets of Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge. The best of the schemes offered a way of ordering and symbolizing what human ingenuity had discovered, [and gives us] a glimpse of the future direction of such systems – taxonomy.

In considering the comparison between these two world views it seems wise to offer an alternative explanation for one of the main changes seen in the shift from one to the other. While it is argued by Harrison that such an account shows a turn to a demand for more “useful” knowledge, it is more elucidating to consider that the question is not one of use as opposed to uselessness, but rather of what was considered useful to the various practitioners of these interpretive methods. The medieval interpretations of nature as allegory served the use of spiritual enlightenment, the emblematic interpretation of nature served the use of holistic wisdom, both of these concepts were more highly valued in their times than what we would today consider practical use. In contrast the literal world view was the only one of these interpretive methods to focus on practical uses, whether they were coming to know God or being able to describe more accurately the anatomy of a pelican. If anything, this trend shows a greater intolerance for uncertainty than a turn away from supposedly useless knowledge.

The effort to develop a set taxonomy described here is the literal equivalent of the expanding series of relations that had developed in the emblematic tradition. Ashworth quotes François Jacob’s comment that: “Living bodies were scraped clean, so to speak. They shook of their crust of analogies, resemblances and signs, to appear in all the nakedness of their true outer shape”. If this was the beginning of the literal world view, it certainly was not its end. What the efforts at taxonomy show is the literal world view’s alternative, or renewed, quest to build itself up, not through a web of associations, but by a chain of facts that would point to the ultimate knowledge of natural entities. If in the emblematic view creatures were systematically expanded into a growing web of associations, then the literal one could be said to have systematically stripped creatures down in a sort of reductionist taxonomy. This method had the new goal of identification, which itself served the purpose of expanding the literal knowledge need for a single, specific, unambiguous language with which to address the natural world.

Ultimately then, the mechanism most likely to have caused the demise of the emblematic world view and the rise of the literal one was the growing feeling that knowledge based on meanings could potentially continue forever. In contrast, knowledge based on observable truths promised a specific end with definite results. The shift was caused by a change from valuing the holistic knowledge of nature as associations to valuing the repeatable and observational knowledge of nature as sensations over and above human history and meaning. One could not repeat the “experiment” of a symbol or emblem, and their uses were discredited in light of their potential for endless ambiguities and interpretations. What is present in the one case is the valuing of knowledge as being incomplete without those necessary uncertainties that make psychological relationships possible, as opposed to the very definite demand for certainty present in a literal account of the world.

As such, meaning and their symbolic representations were eclipsed by a notion of truth and its association with observable facts as the measure of knowledge. The new interpretive tools provided by the literal world view, however, in their need to fill the space left by the receding emblematic tool set, demanded some new descriptive standard. That standard was taxonomy. The physical taxonomy of things being interpreted in terms of their more minute physical components is a method not dissimilar in kind to that of the emblematic world view, yet it benefits from being younger and having the renewed promise of a definitive end. Yet understood this way, the door is open for the possibility that the literal world view could succumb to the same pressures that were the ruination of the emblematic cosmos. The processes may be slowed somewhat by the specialization of knowledge, but one must eventually ask oneself the question: What would happen if this method of interpretation were to encounter the same explosion of “facts” and the same seemingly endless pursuit that led to the demise of the emblematic world view? That is, however, a question for another time. For as has already been stated, when operating under the literal world view, the demand for a thesis under which to organize a collection of information contains within itself the demand for a recognizable, definitive end.

For More Information:






Geoffrey Whitney. A Choice of Emblems 1586 Yorkshire: The Scolar Press Limited, 1973.

Henkel, Arthur, Albrecht Schöne, Ed. Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts.

John Ray, Francis Willughby. The Ornithology of Francis Willughby London: Printed by E. Cotes, 1658.

(Accessible online at: http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:12589921)

Ashworth, William B., Jr. “Natural history and the emblematic world view”, in Reappraisals of the Scientific Revolution, ed. David C. Lindberg, Robert S. Westman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 303-325.

Diehl, Huston. “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England”, Renaissance Quarterly 31 (1986): 49-66.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Tapp, Kevin. “Emblematics”, in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution: From Copernicus to Newton, Ed. Wilbur Applebaum. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000, 203-205.


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