Gerhard F. Strasser, Mara R. Wade. Die DomÖÂ¤nen des Emblems: AuÖÅ¸erliterarische Anwendungen der Emblematik. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2004. WolfenbÖÂ¼tteler Arbeiten zur Barockforschung. Illustrations. index of names. EUR 74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-447-05066-1.
Reviewed by Nicola McLelland (Department of German, University of Nottingham)
Published on H-German (June, 2006)
Emblems in Everyday Life in Early Modern Europe
Emblems are, in the narrowest sense, the combination of an image (pictura) with a title or motto (inscriptio) and an explanatory text (subscriptio ) that make the link between image and title clear (p. 31). They were an important part of early modern German cultural life. The twelve essays (in English and German) contained in this collection were first presented at a colloquium hosted by the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, in 1999, entitled "Beyond the Book." As that title suggests, the papers go beyond emblems as found in emblem books to explore how emblems and emblematic methods have been applied in various domains of everyday life (mostly in Germany, but also in the Netherlands, England and in Scandinavia).
Several papers deal with the incorporation of emblems into architecture, furnishings or decorations--from the highly public, representative use of emblems in the Nuremberg town hall in the early seventeenth century, the heyday of emblems in Germany (Sabine Mödersheim's contribution, "Dulce virtute, comite fortuna. Das emblematische Programm des Goldenen Saals im Nürnberger Rathaus")--to their eventual use, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, in the much humbler, more intimate context of village household furniture in North Frisia (Ingrid Höpel's essay, "Embleme auf Möbeln des 18. Jahrhunderts im Umkreis Husums"), at a time when emblems were already much criticized and discredited in high culture. Other papers that fall into this category are the essays by Johannes Köhler, "Die emblematischen Monatsfliesen in Wrisbergholzen" and Sara C. Smart, "'So gehts hinan zur Sternen-bahn': Das emblematische Programm eines 1694 am Wolfenbüttler Hof gehaltenen Festessens"; the latter looks at how emblems displayed at a banquet in Wolfenbüttel cast the ruling prince, Anton Ulrich, in the authoritative role of absolutist ruler.
A second group of papers examines the use of emblems or emblematic elements in various fields of intellectual or artistic endeavor: in music, where music could be laid out to create a visual symbol, much like concrete poetry in the twentieth century l (Werner Braun: "Visuelle Elemente in der Musik der frühen Neuzeit: Rastralkreuze"); in portraiture (Claudie Balavoine: "The validity of emblematic references for interpreting 16th-century images: two portraits by Hans Holbein"); in didactic materials (Gerhard F. Strasser: "Die Verbindung von Mnemonik und Emblematik in didaktischer Literatur des 17. Jahrhunderts"); and on book title pages, sometimes to striking propagandistic effect (Karl Josef Höltgen: "Englische emblematische Titelblätter der frühen Neuzeit und ihr kultureller Kontext").
A third theme is the use of the emblem as an interpretative tool. Johann Anselm Steiger (who contributes "Luthers Bild-Theologie als theologisches und hermeneutisches Fundament der Emblematik der lutherischen Orthodoxie") shows how the use of images to enhance meaning contained in a text was a natural part of Lutheran "multimedial" pedagogy--thanks to the analogia fidei, the simplest image could prove full of meaning to a believer. This Christian doctrine evidently provides the background for images such as the rainbow as a symbol of peace over Nuremberg, a recurring emblem of a confident city in the first half of the seventeenth century (as discussed by Mara R. Wade in "Von Schedels Weltchronik bis zu Birkens Friedensdichtungen: eine Nürnberger emblematisch-ikonographische Tradition im Kontext"). It also allowed for collections such as the Christliche Sinnebilder (1677) that in turn inspired the emblems on the furniture pieces Höpel discusses. Two papers reveal problems with relying on emblems to interpret artefacts. Carsten Bach-Nielsen (in "The Runes: Hieroglyphs of the North") shows how initial efforts by Ole Worm (1588-1654) and others to decipher images on an ancient Germanic horn found in Jutland in 1639 were governed by an anachronistic determination to interpret them according to emblematics and Christian allegories that could, of course, shed no light whatsoever on the pre-Christian culture in which the horn was made. Balavoine likewise offers an example of the dangers of anachronistic or inappropriate application of known emblematic meanings in her criticism of present-day interpretations of sixteenth-century Holbein paintings. Finally, Johann Becker (in his essay, "Geistlich oder geistreich: vom Sinn ' emblematischer Bilder") highlights dissatisfaction in the eighteenth century with emblems. In the ideal case, at least, the meaning of an emblem's image on its own is intentionally obscure (see Harsdörffer's oft-cited account of how emblems "work," p. 215). In practice, this means that an emblematic image on its own does not carry any inherent meaning. Thus such images could be--and were?"reused and reassigned to new contexts. For instance, printers' woodcuts were reused in cheap publications, whether for pragmatic or playful reasons. (Some of the emblems on the furniture and decorative tiles discussed by Höpel and Köhler also show how emblematic elements from known sources could frequently be adapted and/or rearranged, at least to some extent.) Such arbitrariness of emblems was then attacked in the eighteenth century. Strasser, too, notes dissatisfaction with the inherent obscurity of emblematic images, as he traces how Johann Buno's didactic emblems of the seventeenth century yield in the eighteenth century to the ultimately far more influential orbis picture method of Jan Amos Comenius, which relied on immediately transparent images as a support for learning.
This collection of papers does indeed (as the editors evidently hoped when they planned their colloquium) demonstrate the breadth of applications of emblematic approaches to everyday life, from high to low culture, and over the course of two centuries. The papers also reveal the differing degrees to which the emblematic ideal could be maintained, diluted, or--significantly--misapplied or misinterpreted, and so be laid open to criticism. Unfortunately, the editors do not use their introduction to highlight such themes, but limit themselves to what is, in effect, a simple report on the colloquium, paper by paper. Also lacking is any kind of introduction to the field of emblem studies. Readers looking for definitions of what emblems actually are will find a definition usefully outlined by Mödersheim (p. 31) and amplified in the Harsdörffer passage cited by Höpel (p. 215), but the relationships between emblem and iconography, allegory and symbol are questions that come up frequently, more or less implicitly, as one reads the book. An initial discussion of such distinctions and overlaps would have been useful. So too would some basic introduction to the emblem books from which many of the "applied" emblems were drawn, and the context in which they emerged: these include Andrea Alciato's Emblemata (1531, and many later editions), Peter Isselburg, Emblemata Politica (1617), and Christliche Sinnbilder of Charles II, Prince of the Palatinate (1677). All this information is taken as assumed knowledge--surely a mistake in a project with such a deliberately interdisciplinary appeal.
Of particular value in this volume collection are the numerous black and white illustrations--these make the individual papers much easier to follow, but are, in any case, simply a pleasure to browse. They give as good an impression as the papers themselves of the diversity of applications of emblematics in the early modern period.
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Nicola McLelland. Review of Strasser, Gerhard F.; Wade, Mara R., Die DomÖÂ¤nen des Emblems: AuÖÅ¸erliterarische Anwendungen der Emblematik.
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