Counting Symbols – A Proposal

Semiotics and religion seem inseparable. Christianity itself has a rich tradition of symbols used to indicate aspects of their deity. Emblem books, a genre which began and flourished during the Renaissance, partook in that symbolic history, using earlier symbols and perhaps creating their own. However, 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.

Though the Iconclass data of Emblematica Online’s large collection of emblem books is limited, simply because not every emblem has been tagged, I wish to test the available data’s ability to answer the following two questions. First, which particular symbolic representations for the Christian deity (this includes abstract notions of god, the trinity, and each of the three persons) were culturally prevalent (and to what extent), and which were likely quirks of a particular emblem creator? Second, which other tagged image-signs appear most frequently with the symbols for God (whether they have signifiers pointing to physical things or abstract notions) and what can be inferred from their common association? For example, it could be an artistic tendency by emblem creators (for a type of setting, perhaps), a known and still used semiotic linkage between the ideas expressed, or one contained to the cultural circumstances of the genre. While working towards answering these questions, I will also be able to examine if Iconclass tags are an accurate enough data set for quantitatively based literature investigations.

I will compile (hopefully with the assistance of Emblematica Online staff) a data set for a selected corpus of 1686 emblems,[1] indicating the book, author and illustrator (if the latter is available), nation of publication (and language), and year published for each emblem, using this information to map out the currently known extent of use for a particular set of symbols as labeled with Iconclass. For the same set of Iconclass categories, I will compile data on which other Iconclass categories appear with each most frequently and offer an interpretation of why, perhaps in conjunction with a close reading, as needed. I have selected about 50 Iconclass categories that tend towards abstractions and personifications rather than the illustration of biblical narrative, as these tend to be more inclusive of an overall theological picture, rather than just a repetition of biblical scenes.[2] These categories cover abstract notions of God, including the deity’s wrath and role as creator; symbolic representations of the trinity as a group, and for each of the persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.[3] These symbols can be geometric – circles and triangles – objects, animals, words and letters, mythological creatures or personifications. Thus they can be studied not just individually, but perhaps grouped as well.

Ferdinand de Saussure explained signs (both signifiers and signified) have “no natural connection with the signified” (854). While a drawing of a tree can problematize this notion,[4] it remains true for symbols of a religious nature. Looking at the symbols for the Christian deity within emblem books, examining how widespread they were in place and time and what pictorial/relational contexts they were used in, can offer a clearer picture of the social conventions regarding religion and spirituality within which the emblem book creators and their audiences lived. Not only may it reveal instances of symbolic inheritance from earlier visual arts, it could indicate potential avenues for symbol groupings that exist even today.



Works Cited

Stäcker, Thomas et al. “About the Project.” Emblematica Online: Resources for Emblem Studies. University of Illinois and Herzog August Bibliothek. Web. 13 Jan. 2016.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “From Course in General Linguistics.” Trans. Wade Baskin. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. 850-66. Print.



[1] This number may be smaller in the end, given that some emblems could include more than one of the symbols I wish to study.

[2] Biblical scenes may still be included, simply because the symbols are used in them as well. In fact, I may discover that, in the emblem books, certain symbols are most frequently associated with such scenes.

[3] AKA Holy Spirit, depending on one’s time period and tradition.

[4] As it could intentionally be symbolising the visual aspect of an actual tree, and thus is not as arbitrary.

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