Emblems Ancient and Modern (1699)

Some believe that the tradition of personal badges (or “devices”) and emblems descends from antiquity, when militaristic signs were carried into war to instill terror in enemies and influence the outcome of battles. Daniel S. Russell discusses the “strange or prophetic dimension” that these symbols could mediate in medieval Europe, giving the example of Charles VI, who adopted the device of a crowned, winged deer after capturing a stag wearing a copper collar in the forest of Halatte, which was inscribed with mysterious, ungrammatical Latin: “Hoc Caesar me donavit” (Caesar has given me this”). Into the seventeenth century, these images mixed with heraldry and retained their talismanic properties, but gained newfound associations as reflections of the bearer’s intellect and wit. Here the “emblem” tradition — primarily used to convey moral lessons and lead the contemplating viewer toward spiritual clarity — splits from the wider uptake of “devices”, which were used as personal insignia, combining symbolic and textual elements meant to draw attention to the virtuous qualities of their bearer. Books that collected these devices and emblems could serve didactic purposes, such as Thomas Treter’s Symbolica vitae Christi meditatio (1612), where Tarot-adjacent imagery becomes a springboard toward spiritual contemplation, and later volumes focused on the moral education of youth. Or they could serve as source books for individuals in need of a decorative brand.

Devises et emblemes (1699) is a compendium of symbolic compositions both ancient and modern, with corresponding mottoes in German, Latin, French, and Italian. It is thought to have been created as a kind of pattern book for artists and artisans alike. Some highlights include a floating stone, a lion being suspended over an empty throne, and a levitating heart basking in the light of a personified sun. The significance is hardly apparent to today’s reader. A flying scorpion soaring amid stars indicates that it is “worse up there than down here”. An elephant with his trunk upraised symbolizes the pleasure of pure piety, but an elephant stepping on a snake signals that no one can escape punishment. There are nearly as many meanings for trees as there are species, depending on where the branches are placed, and whether they bear fruit or foliage. But it is a mistake to believe that these cryptic combinations of text and image were once widely legible. Puzzling over their meaning was the whole point. The eighteenth-century encyclopedist Johann Heinrich Zedler offered the following definition of emblems a few decades after Devises et Emblems appeared: “An emblem is a picture with an image and a few accompanying words, which contains a hidden message and leads to deeper reflection. The picture stimulates the body while the text stimulates the soul.”

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This particular work is the pièce de resistance of Daniel de La Feuille (1640–1709), a French watchmaker’s apprentice who fled with his family to Amsterdam after facing religious persecution. Here he established himself as a publisher, goldsmith, cartographer, engraver, and art dealer. Aside from Devises et emblemes, his circa 1708 Atlas portatif, ou, le nouveau theatre de la guerre en Europe (Portable atlas, or, the new theater of war in Europe) proved popular, prompting further French, Dutch, and English editions. The Library of Congress has digitized a particularly remarkable page from this atlas, collaging fortifications, defensible terrain, and military technology — the kind of scene over which devices and emblems once held sway.

Below you will find a selection of nine pages from this elaborate book. For those that like their morning cuppa with a dash of ancient and modern symbolism, we offer mugs decorated with these devices and emblems.