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What is an Emblem?

Insignia Poetarum

An Emblem is a symbolic picture with accompanying text, of a type which developed in the sixteenth century and enjoyed an enormous vogue for the next 200 years or more, when several thousand emblem books issued from printing presses throughout Europe. Emblem books exercised an enormous influence on literature and the visual arts, and therefore they have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in painting, decorative arts, literature, illustrated books, iconography, symbolism, theories of representation, social and cultural history.

man playing

Since the 1970s the study of emblem books has undergone an exponential growth of academic interest, with more than twenty local and international conferences, and publications- including new reprint series, bibliographies, histories of the way emblem books developed in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain, theoretical studies, and research into 'applied emblematics'- the way emblems were used in decorative painting, fine art, jewelery, tapestries, decorative plasterwork, monumental carving, architecture, pageantry, and material culture generally. Emblems and emblem books influenced poets and creative writers in all the major European languages, they were used in the classroom, in rhetoric, and in heraldry. Emblematic forms and conventions can be shown to influence modern advertising.

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Society for Emblem Studies
Page editor Stephen Rawles (
Last updated: 2 June 2002