Heart For Art’s Sake: 17th Century Emblems Of Virtue And Sin

Vices and virtues in life and how shape your bleeding heart - emblems from a 17th Century German book to living well

“It cannot be denied that one emblem is easy, another difficult; one good and penetrating, the other bad and simple; one to be interpreted as one thing, another pointing to many different matters. The best are, in my opinion, those in the middle that are neither much too high, nor much too low; that can certainly be understood, but do not immediately lie open to all and sundry.”
– Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (1607-1658) 



Known generally as ‘Das erneurte Stamm- und Stechbüchlein’, the long title form of this fairly orthodox emblem book from 1654 translates as:

‘The Revised Compendium and Engraving Booklet [with] hundreds of spiritual and secular heart seals/mirrors for a particular illustration of the Virtues and Vices presented and explained with hundreds of poetic conceits by Fabian Athyrus, devout in the praiseworthy Intellectual Arts’

The current academic belief has it that Fabian Athyrus is a pseudonym for the German Baroque poet and emblem fancier, Georg Phillip Harsdörffer, writes Paul K. This recent post – The Odd Baroque – gives some background about Harsdörffer’s interesting role in championing German literature during the 17th century.

The present work is a collection of moral emblems in which the recurring symbolic motif in the figura is a heart. As the title indicates, the collection seeks to advise the reader about vices and virtues in life and does so in a visual sense by displaying variations of a picture of the heart – which might be taken to be, say, the spiritual wellbeing or goodness of a person, as it still often is today – in a series of contexts that convey an overall allegorical message. The emblems are augmented by a motto and accompanying written elaboration.

The majority of emblem books were published in the 16th and 17th centuries with the first being Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum Liber in 1531. More than six hundred authors were responsible for the publication of more than six thousand emblem books in Europe, when re-releases and translations are taken into account. They cover a vast amount of subject matter and their complexity and diversity have ensured they provide a deep well for ongoing scholarly research.



Mein Hertz ist ein Pollet ünd trägt der Farben viel
Mein Freüd ist Pinselart, ünd mischt sie wie er will.

My heart is a pallet and carries colors many
My joy is brush art and mixes them as it will

The colorful Heart (adjacent text)

“The Artists’ Commendation”
“When once upon a time on Parnassus the famous artists wished that a memory of their miracle-work might be preserved in the temple of eternity, such petition was answered with merciful compliance: Albrecht Dürer / Michael Angelo / Tician / Sandrad / Merian and many others have adorned the walls with their paintings and most intellectual inventions and artificially* preserved and delightfully decorated the appearance of many decaying things.”
*(with a play on Künstler – “artist” – and künstlich – “artificial”)

“Zeno, founder of Stoic philosophy, engaged in this and said that the heart of man is the right temple of eternity, which should become the most handsomely adorned with images of the virtues. The heart, said he, is shaped like a painter’s pallet; all manner of colors are on it, and art consists of the same masterly use and for the application (? “Werkbringung”) of the high colors of virtue and the dark shadows of vice. Apollo hereupon gave this response: That both (these) should be together, a wise man’s house should be adorned with beautiful paintings, his heart though with comely virtues.”



Die Hoffnung führet mich gen Himmel von der Erden,
Die Hoffnung welche läßt niemals zu schanden werden.

Hope leads me from earth toward heaven,
The hope that never lets one come to ruin.



Mein Herz daß ist zu Gott auff Erden stets gericht,
Und weiset seinen Schatz wann es der Todt Zerbricht.

My heart – that is on earth ever aimed at God,
And shows its treasure when Death shatters it.



Mein tief verwundes Herz kan niemals werden heil,
Dar micht der kalte Brand folgt nach den liebes Pfeil.

My deeply wounded heart can never become whole (i.e. heal),
For after the arrow of Love follows the cold fire.



Was man mir anvertraut bleibt in des Herzens thür
Verschlossen und gewies Verschwigen für und für.

What one entrusts to me remains locked in my heart’s
Door and surely kept in silence for ever and ever.



So leicht der leichte Wind umbtreibt daß Kinderspiel,
So leichtlich wendet sich mein Herz von seinem Ziel.

As lightly as the light wind pushes round the children’s toy,
So lightly turns my heart from its goal.



Mein herz tracht nach dem Ruhm den Kunst und Bücher bringen.
Ich will mich durch den fleiß bis an die Wolcken schwingen.

My heart seeks the glory that skill and books bring.
With diligence, I want to vault up to the clouds.



Mein Herz führt diesen Spruch: Todt, oder ehrlich Leben,
Es kan mir auch der Todt den Ehren Namen geben.

My heart keeps this saying: Death, or honest life,
Even Death can give me a noble name.



Mann meinet meine sach sei mir nach wunsch geglückt
Ach nein, ich weiß allein wo mich der schue trückt.

People think my business has succeeded as I wished.
Alas no, I alone know where my shoe pinches me.



Mir hat der Meuchel Neid die Brillen aufgesteckt,
Daß meines Nechstens Glück mich oftermals Erschreckt.

Treacherous Envy has put glasses on me,
So that my neighbor’s luck often terrifies me.



Was ich im Herzen hab, das sag ich mit dem Munde.
Wer mein gesicht betracht, schaudt meines Herzens grunde.

What I have in my heart, that say I with my mouth.
Who looks upon my face, sees the bottom of my heart.



Emblems were deployed to communicate to the observer a greater level of knowledge than could be expressed through language alone.

It’s perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of Baroque culture, this notion of a semiotic theory of metaphor, in which objects, forms and illustrations were processed and valued according to their hidden meanings. Whether natural or artificial, each entity might have a correspondence with another object or might symbolise abstract qualities like vices or virtues and in a literary sense, pictures made up of varying elements and layers of meaning could be further augmented with mottoes or epigrams or allegorical text by way of accompaniment.

Two other things worth noting – one relevant here and one not – are that with the Baroque abstract manner of perception, it’s not surprising that people played around while crafting visual motifs in order to embed very obtuse labyrinths of allusion to dazzle, perplex and amuse the literati. That perception also has a resonance with the collection culture: having a wunderkammer filled with amazing objects was not just about creating a display museum. The objects were themselves symbols through which the collector was able to derive a more profound knowledge of the world.


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