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Puzzling Pictures: Mary in Emblem Books

By Henry Handley

What do the sun, reading and Mary have in common? Emblem books, a popular genre of books from the 16th through the 18th century, can shed some light on that question.

Emblems are made up of three parts:

  • Symbolic images.
  • Short phrases summing up the meaning or moral of the images.
  • Poems that further explicate the symbols’ connection to the emblem’s subject.

Puzzling, surprising and sometimes contradictory, emblem books can be polyglot works, with Latin and Greek mottos next to vernacular verse. They frequently mix secular (and often classical) sources with Christian morality.

Like anagram authors, emblem makers used the form to draw connections between Marian dogmas, titles and Scripture. Jan de Leenheer focused even more closely on connections between Mary and the sun in Virgo Maria mystica sub solis imagine emblematice expressa. Leenheer and other emblem book creators sometimes chose to include anagrams, acrostic poems and other word puzzles alongside the emblems.

Creative (and opinionated) owners also made their own additions and edits to the books. The Marian Library’s copy of the Nucleus emblematum selectissimorum has so much original material missing — including emblems commenting on celibacy and the Catholic Church from a Protestant perspective — and so many additional hand-drawn emblems (63!) that it was given a unique catalog record as a distinct work. To give this some context, think of a scholarly ebook edition of Pride and Prejudice with notes and a bibliography versus the 1813 first edition; each has its own catalog record to note publication details and format, though the same text is at the core of each. 

Although you can’t find a section for emblem books in bookstores today, the once-popular genre can be seen as a predecessor of political cartoons, memes and any work where text, image and meaning are interdependent. And of course you can make an appointment to view emblem books in the Marian Library.

Examples of Emblems from Marian Library collections

frontispiece In this engraving by Gaspar Boutats in Jan de Leenheer’s Virgo Maria mystica sub solis imagine emblematice expressa (1681), Mary is crowned by the sun and surrounded by cherubim carrying acrostic poems of her name in Latin.

emblemAuthor Antonius Ginther frames each of his emblems in Mater amoris et doloris (1752) as a consideratio, or contemplation, suggesting above this emblem and motto that "The Blessed Virgin and Mother of Sorrows is a book from which everyone is able to see the teachings of God through reading and contemplation."

frontispiece The stone building in the frontispiece to Isaac of Ochsenfurt’s Elogia mariana (1700) connects the Annunciation and Ave Maria to the many titles of Mary in the Litany of Loreto.

– Henry Handley is a collections librarian in the Marian Library.


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