Wisdom - from George Wither's Book of Emblems (London 1635)
Woodcut from Guillaume de La Perrière, Le Théâtre des bons engins, 1545.

An emblem book is a book collecting emblems (allegorical illustrations) with accompanying explanatory text, typically morals or poems. This category of books was popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Emblem books are collections of sets of three elements: an icon or image, a motto, and text explaining the connection between the image and motto.[1] The text ranged in length from a few lines of verse to pages of prose.[1] Emblem books descended from medieval bestiaries that explained the importance of animals, proverbs, and fables.[1] In fact, writers often drew inspiration from Greek and Roman sources such as Aesop's Fables and Plutarch's Lives.[1]


But if someone asks me what Emblemata really are? I will reply to him, that they are mute images, and nevertheless speaking: insignificant matters, and none the less of importance: ridiculous things, and nonetheless not without wisdom [...]

— Jacob Cats, Voor-reden over de Proteus, of Minne-beelden, verandert in sinne-beelden.[2]

Scholars differ on the key question of whether the actual emblems in question are the visual images, the accompanying texts, or the combination of the two.[3] This is understandable, given that first emblem book, the Emblemata of Andrea Alciato, was first issued in an unauthorized edition in which the woodcuts were chosen by the printer without any input from the author, who had circulated the texts in unillustrated manuscript form. It contained around a hundred short verses in Latin.[1] One image it depicted was the lute, which symbolized the need for harmony instead of warfare in the city-states of Italy.[1]

Some early emblem books were unillustrated, particularly those issued by the French printer Denis de Harsy. With time, however, the reading public came to expect emblem books to contain picture-text combinations. Each combination consisted of a woodcut or engraving accompanied by one or more short texts, intended to inspire their readers to reflect on a general moral lesson derived from the reading of both picture and text together. The picture was subject to numerous interpretations: only by reading the text could a reader be certain which meaning was intended by the author. Thus the books are closely related to the personal symbolic picture-text combinations called personal devices, known in Italy as imprese and in France as devises. Many of the symbolic images present in emblem books were used in other contexts, on clothes, furniture, street signs, and the façades of buildings.[1] For instance, a sword and scales symbolized death.[1]


Emblem books, both secular and religious, attained enormous popularity throughout continental Europe, though in Britain they did not capture the imagination of readers to quite the same extent. The books were especially numerous in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and France. Emblem books first became popular in the sixteenth century with Andrea Alciato's Emblemata and remained popular until the eighteenth century.[1]

Many emblematic works borrowed plates or texts (or both) from earlier exemplars, as was the case with Geoffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblemes, a compilation which chiefly used the resources of the Plantin Press in Leyden.

Early European studies of Egyptian hieroglyphs, like that of Athanasius Kircher, assumed that the hieroglyphs were emblems, and imaginatively interpreted them accordingly.

A similar collection of emblems, but not in book form, is Lady Drury's Closet.


Author or compilator Title Engraver, Illustrator Publisher Loc. Publ. Theme # of Embl. Lang. [n 1] Notes
Andrea Alciato Emblemata probably Hans Schäufelin after Jörg Breu the Elder Heinrich Steyner Augsburg 1531 104 the first and most widely disseminated emblem book.
Guillaume de La Perrière Le théâtre des bons engins, auquel sont contenuz cent emblèmes moraulx   Denis Janot Paris 1539
Achille Bocchi Symbolicarum quaestionum de universo genere       1555
Gabriele Faerno Centum Fabulae       1563 fables 100 la
János Zsámboky Emblemata cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis     Vienna 1564
Joris Hoefnagel Patientia     London 1569 moral
Georgette de Monteney Emblemes, ou Devises Chrestiennes   Jean de Tournes ? Lyon 1571
Nicolaus Reusner Emblemata     Frankfurt 1581
Geoffrey Whitney Choice of Emblemes (various) Plantin Leiden 1586 248
Cesare Ripa Iconologia     Rome 1593 not properly speaking an emblem book but a collection of erudite allegories.
Nicolaus Taurellus Emblemata Physico Ethica     Nuremberg 1595
Daniel Heinsius Quaeris quid sit amor Jakob de Gheyn II   (Netherlands) 1601 love first emblem book dedicated to love; later name "Emblemata amatoria"
Jacobus Typotius Symbola Divina et Humana Aegidius Sadeler II   Prague 1601
Otto van Veen Amorum Emblemata[4] Otto van Veen Henricus Swingenius Antwerp 1608 love 124 la Published in more than one multilingual edition, with variants including French, Dutch, English, Italian and Spanish
Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft Emblemata Amatoria     (Netherlands) 1611 love Not to be confused with Quaeris quid sit amor, which was republished under the same name.
Gabriel Rollenhagen Nucleus emblematum     Hildesheim 1611
Otto van Veen Amoris divini emblemata Otto van Veen   (Netherlands) 1615 divine love
Daniel Heinsius Het Ambacht van Cupido     Leiden 1615
Michael Maier Atalanta Fugiens Matthias Merian Johann Theodor de Bry Oppenheim 1617 alchemy 50 la,de Also contains a fugue for each emblem
Peter Iselburg [de] Aula Magna Curiae Noribergensis Depicta     Nuremberg 1617 32 la,de
Daniel Cramer, Conrad Bachmann [de] Emblemata Sacra       1617 40
(various) Thronus Cupidinis [nl]     (Netherlands) 1618
Jacob Cats Silenus Alcibiadis, sive Proteus     (Netherlands?) 1618
Jacob Cats Sinn’en Minne-beelden Adriaen van de Venne   (Netherlands) 1618 Two alternative explanations for each emblem, one related to mind (Sinnn), the other to love (Minne).
Julius Wilhelm Zincgref Emblemata     Frankfurt 1619
Jacob Cats Monita Amoris Virginei     Amsterdam 1620 moral 45 for women
Raphael Custos Emblemata amoris       1622
Johan de Brune [nl] Emblemata of Zinne-werck Adriaen van de Venne   Amsterdam 1624 51
Herman Hugo Pia desideria Boetius à Bolswert   Antwerp 1624 la 42 Latin editions; widely translated
Daniel Stolz von Stolzenberg Viridarium Chymicum     Prague? 1624 alchemy
Zacharias Heyns Emblemata     (Netherlands?) 1625
Lucas Jennis Musaeum Hermeticum Frankfurt 1625 alchemy la
Jacob Cats Proteus ofte Minne-beelden     Rotterdam 1627
Benedictus van Haeften Schola cordis       1629
Daniel Cramer Emblemata moralia nova     Frankfurt 1630
Antonius a Burgundia Linguae vitia et remedia Jacob Neefs, Andries Pauwels Joannes Cnobbaert Antwerp 1631 45 [5]
Jacob Cats Spiegel van den Ouden ende Nieuwen Tijdt Adriaen van de Venne   (Netherlands?) 1632
Henry Hawkins Partheneia Sacra       1633
Etienne Luzvic Le cœur dévot       1634 translated into English as The Devout Heart
George Wither A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne       1635
Francis Quarles Emblems William Marshall & al.     1635
Jan Harmenszoon Krul Minne-spiegel ter Deughden     Amsterdam 1639
Jean Bolland, Sidronius Hosschius Imago primi saeculi Societatis Iesu a provincia Flandro-Belgica ejusdem Societatis repraesentata Cornelis Galle the Elder Plantin Press Antwerp 1640 A Jesuit emblem book illustrating the history of the Jesuit order in the Southern Netherlands
Diego de Saavedra Fajardo Empresas Políticas       1640
(anonymous) Devises et emblemes d'amour[6] Albert Flamen   Paris 1648
Filippo Picinelli Il mondo simbolico     Milan 1653 encyclopedic it 1000 pages
Adrien Gambart La Vie symbolique du bienheureux François de Sales Albert Flamen   Paris 1664
Jan Luyken Jesus en de ziel     (Netherlands) 1678
Josep Romaguera Atheneo de Grandesa (anonymous)   Barcelona 1681 15 ca
  Livre curieux et très utile pour les sçavans, et artistes Nicolas Verrien Daniel de La Feuille Amsterdam 1691 encyclopedic
Jan Luyken Het Menselyk Bedryf
("The Book of Trades")
    (Netherlands?) 1694 trades
Jacobus Boschius Symbolographia sive De Arte Symbolica sermones septem   Caspar Beucard Augsburg 1701 encyclopedic 3347
Romeyn de Hooghe Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude volkeren     (Netherlands?) 1735
  1. ^ Original language, using ISO 639-1

Authors and artists famous for emblem books

Further reading


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. United States of America: The J. Paul Getty Museum. pp. 92–93. ISBN 978-1-60606-083-4.
  2. ^ Schipper (1665). "Al de werken van I. Cats" (PDF). Amsterdamfirst= Jan Jacobsz.
  3. ^ "Emblematica Online". emblematica.grainger.illinois.edu. Retrieved 2023-10-26.
  4. ^ "Amorum emblemata, figuris aeneis incisa". Internet Archive. 1608.
  5. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2015-03-16.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ "Devises et emblesmes d'amour moralisez". Internet Archive. 1672.