“Emblematics is a repository of the literary and iconographic common-places of the European artistic tradition, and one in which elements originating from the symbol systems of Classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance are legitimized by the authority of tradition.”
– Éva Knapp and Gábor Tüskés (12)
Semiotics and religion seem inseparable. Christianity has a rich tradition of symbols used to indicate aspects of their deity. Emblem books, a genre which flourished during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, partook in that symbolic history, as Knapp and Tüskés note in the above quote. Moreover, each symbol did not exist in a vacuum on the emblem book page, they united with other characters, objects and settings in a complex of visual semiotics. Thus, to illuminate the usage of particular emblem book symbols of God – that is Father, Son and Holy Ghost – one must examine the historical and iconographic contexts of these symbols.
To that end, my project uses bibliographic and Iconclass metadata, examined through data visualisation tools, particularly Tableau. While the data analysis may not reveal anything dramatically ground-breaking, it can give numerical support to the arguments already made by emblem scholars. Additionally, data visualisation can entice one’s curiosity, leading to further questions and research.
This post will discuss my general method, emblems themselves and my dataset. The next will discuss artifacts and errors, and the limitations of the data. The third will look at the prevailing trends of the bibliographic data, looking at some outliers, and showing what can be learned about a single symbol’s cultural movements in emblem books. Finally, the forth will describe my attempt to spot patterns in the iconographic context of the Iconclass notation “11A3 God’s wrath”, outlining my process step by step, and commenting on the efficacy of my method, postulating some things I could do to improve accuracy.
Acknowledgements and Method
Before going further; I must acknowledge the work of my collaborators on this project. The data for my project comes from Emblematica Online; the goal of the project behind that site is to make the emblem book collections of six academic institutions, from North America and Europe, readily accessible and useful to scholars; part of that goal involves the process of marking up each and every emblem. Firstly, I thank Mara R. Wade, the project’s principle investigator, along with Timothy Cole and Janina Sarol who gathered the data for me, and asked pertinent questions. I also must offer thanks to John Brosz, Research Data & Visualization Coordinator at the University of Calgary, who worked with me to wrangle the data into a format useable in Tableau.
Because I wanted to focus on the emblematic symbols for God, I began this project by selecting sixty-one Iconclass notations for the Christian deity. Iconclass is a hierarchical system allowing scholars to mark-up images, including emblem pictura, to make their content searchable. Much more can be learned about the intricacies of the Iconclass hierarchy here.
For each of the terms I requested, the list of which is in the above image (click any image to open it in a new tab), Cole and Sarol provided me with a spreadsheet for all the emblems that start with that Iconclass notation; because Iconclass is a hierarchy, this allowed the data for “11A3 God’s wrath” to include the data for emblems tagged as subcategories of that concept – for example, “11A3(+1)”, which adds the Trinity through the “+1” key, and “11A31 ‘Flagello di Dio’ (Ripa)”, which translates to “The Scourge of God”. The idea was that a complete picture of the emblems for God’s wrath would include those emblems tagged in the subcategories. Each spreadsheet includes two types of metadata revealing context: bibliographical data – such as publication location, language, and date – for the historical/cultural context; and a list of all the Iconclass notations associated with each emblem for the Iconographic context. From this raw data, John Brosz worked with me to organise a set of data-tables that would allow each of the variables in the data to be countable, showing me how many emblems in a set were published in French, or in 1736, or in what we call Antwerp, Belgium today.
Background – Emblems and a Limited Dataset
Getting an accurate number for how many different emblem books exist is difficult given the uncertainty of what exactly the boundaries of the genre are. Andrea Alciato, or Alciati, considered to be the father of the emblem book genre, created what is considered to be the first emblem book in 1531. The genre remained popular until about 1750 (Cole, Han, and Vannoy 111; Knapp and Tüskés 10). However, the boundaries of the genre extend past those dates, Emblematica Online has works dated from 1508 to 1905, though whether those outliers are proper emblem books, or merely have some emblem-like aspects, likely depends on whom one asks. The emblem below is considered typical of the form, consisting of motto, pictura and epigram (usually in verse) (see Cole, Han, and Vannoy 111).
However, other forms existed, such as the below two-page spread, with a numbered list of multilingual mottos on one side and associated picturae on the facing page.
In content and tone, emblems were largely moralistic and didactic (Knapp and Tüskés 17, 38, 90; Rooley 275; Stronks 148). Yet there were also ones that dealt with profane and erotic love (Knapp and Tüskés 46; Saunders 423; Stronks 149), or even “family, school, and social life” (Knapp and Tüskés 47). The audience for the genre seems to have been wide, including clergy (Visser 163), members of the nobility, and merchants (Rooley 275); with emblem books being used for religious instruction ((Knapp and Tüskés 48), contemplation (Rooley 275), and even entertainment (Rooley 275). Because of the diversity of content, audience and form, estimating the amount of different emblem books is difficult.
Using Emblematica Online and the work of Arnoud Visser and Peter M. Daly, I have made a rough estimate of the total amount of existent emblem books. My data set represents a tiny fraction of the whole. Visser states that over 100 editions of Alciato’s emblem books were published from 1531-1620 (Visser 162); Daly gives a count of 175 Alciato editions in total (Daly n. pag.). Emblematica Online has 65 books by Alciato, 56 published before 1620. Therefore, the site has approximately 56% of Alciato’s texts using Visser, or 37% using Daly. Assuming that such a ratio can be attributed to the entire Emblematica Online collection, undoubtedly a weak assumption at best, then one could estimate the total of existent emblem books. Emblematica Online has 1,381 books; as far as I can tell, they are all different, though they may be translations and different editions of the same work. Thus, one can estimate their being between 2,466 and 3,732 existent emblem books.
Therefore, comparing the size of my data set to these estimates and the Emblematica Online collection looks something like this:
My dataset includes emblems from just 160 books; and to be clear, it does not even include every emblem from those books. Though I cannot estimate how many emblems exist in total, the Emblematica Online projects have tagged 28,313 emblems with Iconclass notations, though they have more emblems they have yet to code with metadata. Of those emblems, my dataset includes only 1,517; approximately 5.4% of those tagged, as visualised below.
My project was not designed to say anything regarding the genre as a whole; it is focused on particular symbols, and is thus not a randomised set either. My dataset, while including more emblems than I could hope to analyse through close reading, contains only a small fraction of all existent emblems. Any arguments I make in the following posts are reflective of my dataset only, contingent on the currently available emblem metadata. It will be interesting to see if the patterns hold as more emblems containing God-symbols are marked-up.
 A book being popular enough to warrant another printing in the same or another language actually supports the idea that the symbols in its emblems were a little more widespread; thus counting each edition as a separate work is appropriate for my project.
Cole, Timothy W., Myung-Ja K. Han, and Jordan A. Vannoy. “Descriptive Metadata, Iconclass, and Digitized Emblem Literature.” Proceedings of the 12th ACM/IEEE-CS joint conference on Digital Libraries. New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2012. 111-20. ACM Digital Library. Web. 28 Jun. 2015.
“Contents of Iconclass.” Iconclass. RKD, 2012. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.
Daly, Peter M. Introduction. Andreas Alciatus. 2 vols. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985. N. pag. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
Devises et emblemes anciennes & modernes, tirâees des plus celebres auteurs, oder, Emblematische Gemèuths-Vergnèugungbey Betrachtung siben hundert und funffzehen der curieusesten und ergèotzlichen Sinn-Bildern, mit ihren zustèandigen teutsch-lateinisch-franzèosisch- und italianischen Beyschrifften. Augspurg [Augsburg, Ger.]: Verlegs Lorentz Kroniger und Gottleib Gèobels Seel[enfreund] Erben, 1695. Emblematica Online. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
Emblematica Online. University of Illinois Board of Trustees, 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
Knapp, Éva, and Gábor Tüskés. Emblematics in Hungary: A Study of the History of Symbolic Representation in Renaissance and Baroque Literature. Trans. András Török and Zsuzsa Boronkay. Tübingen, Ger.: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2003. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Rooley, Anthony. “1612—John Dowland and the Emblem Tradition.” Early Music 41.2 (2013): 273-80. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Stronks, Els. “Dutch Religious Love EmblemsL Reflections of Faith and Toleration in the Later 17th Century.” Literature & Theology 23.2 (2009): 142-64. Oxford Journals. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Visser, Arnoud. “Escaping The Reformation in The Republic of Letters: Confessional Silence in Latin Emblem Books.” Church History and Religious Culture 88.2 (2008): 139-67. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
Zsámboki, János and Jacques Grévin. Emblemes. A Anvers [Antwerp, Belg.]: De l’imprimerie de Christophle Plantin, 1567. Emblematica Online. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
Finding God in the Metadata: Distant Reading and Emblem Studies by Aaron Ellsworth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.