As part of my August challenge, I’ve gone back to painting. It’s been wonderful. Here are the first four works I have created. Apologies for the skewed black borders – some of the pages are a little warped from the watercolors. At this point, I’m primarily trying to get back my sea-legs, so to speak. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to move away from models and into more imaginative, creative territory. For now, I’m happy with the start I’ve made.
I was recently asked by the administrator of Catholics from the Crypt to write a brief introduction to Dom Augustin Calmet, Abbot-General of the Congregation of St. Vanne. My qualifications for this task are minimal but, I think, sufficient. First, I know a little about Calmet, which is, sadly, more than many can say. He is an unfairly overlooked figure in our religious and cultural landscape. Secondly, I hope to write my Master’s Thesis on Calmet’s Histoire Universelle, though of course the actual process of research might change my direction. For the time being, I am glad of the challenge, and will likely turn this into the first of a series of short biographies of weird religious figures.
Dom Calmet, born on the 26th of February, 1672, in the then-Duchy of Bar (now Lorraine, France) had a long and impressive career. Entering religious life at the Benedictine Priory of Breuil, he moved around over the years to obtain his education at various abbeys. His itinerary reads like an honor roll of some of the finest establishments of the Franco-German monastic intelligentsia: St. Mansuy, St. Èvre, Munster, Mouyenmoutier, Lay-Saint-Christophe, St. Leopold. Yet the two monasteries most closely associated with his career are Senones Saint-Pierre and Vosges, where he eventually died a holy death.
He achieved widespread scholarly respect for his work in three different fields. First, Calmet distinguished himself as an Exegete. His Biblical method differed from more classical forms of exegesis by focusing entirely on the literal meaning of the text; this exposed him to criticism, even amidst the general acclaim which the book and its abridgements garnered.
Second, he became an eminent author of sacred and profane history. While my own interest lies most heavily with his Histoire Universelle (1735-47), Calmet also devoted considerable attention to more specific topics. It should come as no surprise, given the libraries to which he had access, that he devoted special care to the region which bore him. His titles include History of the Famous Men of Lorraine (1750), Dissertation on the Highways of Lorraine (1727), Genealogical History of the House of Châtelet (1741), and posthumous histories of both Senones (1877-81) and Munster (1882).
However, Calmet achieved lasting fame for his extremely popular work on Vampires: first, Dissertations on the Apparitions of Angels, Demons, and Spirits, and on the Revenants and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (1746) He later expanded the text into his famous Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on the Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, of Moravia, &c. in 1752. These texts were, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to apply scientific rigor to the tales of the undead then current throughout Europe.
The books were a huge hit, and remain widely respected by occult writers today. To quote one source:
Re-released in 1748, with the most complete edition in 1751, this book is considered to be [the] authoritative treatment on the subject, containing an unprecedented collection of ghostly stories of revenants. It was a best seller for the period, quickly translated into German and Italian for a broader audience. Calmet’s tone considers the possibility of vampires with a certain ambiguity, possibly in light of the larger body of his publications for the church. Still, this is widely regarded as the starting point of all vampiric literature.
The work garnered critical attention from no less a figure than Voltaire. As that eminent source, Wikipedia, relates, Voltaire wrote of Calmet with no small astonishment:
What! It is in our 18th century that there have been vampires! It is after the reign of Locke, of Shaftesbury, of Trenchard, of Collins; it is under the reign of d’Alembert, of Diderot, of Saint-Lambert, of Duclos that one has believed in vampires, and that the Reverend Priest Dom Augustin Calmet, priest, Benedictine of the Congregation of Saint-Vannes and Saint-Hydulphe, abbot of Senones, an abbey of a hundred thousand livres of rent, neighbor of two other abbeys of the same revenue, has printed and re-printed the History of Vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed by Marcilli!
[NB: translation is my own]
We can only imagine what conversation transpired between the two thinkers when Voltaire stayed at Senones in 1754, only a few years before the abbot’s death.
It is perhaps unusual that a monk who was, by all accounts, part of the same intellectual circles as the Maurist Enlighteners and the Philosophes would take to such a strange subject. Calmet certainly saw himself as partaking of that wider project. He writes in his preface to the Treatise,
My goal is not at all to foment superstition, nor to maintain the vain curiosity of Visionaries, and of those who believe without examination all that one tells them, as soon as they find therein the marvelous and the supernatural. I do not write but for those reasonable and unprejudiced spirits, who examine things seriously and with sang-froid; I do not speak but for those who do not give their consent to known truths but with maturity, who know to doubt things uncertain, to suspend their judgment in things doubtful, and to refute that which is manifestly false. (Calmet ii).
[NB: translation is my own]
Perhaps we should not be so surprised. After all, the religious history of Europe is peppered with eccentric and erudite men drawn to esoteric studies. And by the time that Dom Calmet died in 1757, the French monastics had not yet reached the height of their oddity. That would come later, with the well-traveled and thoroughly bizarre Swedenborgian and Martinist monk Antoine-Joseph Pernety, whom I hope to someday investigate more thoroughly.
The Revolution changed all that. No longer could monks live their lives freely, let alone attempt serious academic inquiry. It would take the genius of men like Dom Prosper Guéranger to restore the French Benedictines to their former glory.
A wonderful passage, taken from Ennead I.6. The translation is drawn from this page.
VI. For, as the ancient Oracle declares, temperance, fortitude and every virtue, aye, and wisdom herself, are purifications. Wherefore the sacred mysteries are right when they say enigmatically that he that is not purified shall, when he cometh to the House of Hades, lie in the mud. For, through their baseness, the filthy are friends of the mire, just as swine, whose bodies are unclean, delight to wallow in it.
For what is true temperance unless it be not to give oneself up to the pleasures of the body, and to flee from them as being neither pure nor belonging to that which is pure? And fortitude is not to fear death; and death is the separation of the soul from the body. He who desires to become alone will not fear this. Again, great-ness of soul is contempt of mortal concerns, and wisdom is the exercise of intellect turned away from that which is below and leading the soul upward to the heights.
When therefore the soul is purified, she becomes form and reason, altogether incorporeal, intellectual, and wholly of the divine order whence is the fountain of beauty and all that is akin thereto.
The soul borne upwards towards intellect puts on a marvellous beauty. Intellect, and that which comes from Intellect, is the beauty which truly belongs to her and is not foreign to her; because, when united to It, and then only, is she truly soul. Wherefore it is rightly said that the beauty and good of the soul consist in her assimilation to God; for it is thence that her beauty comes and the gift of a better lot than her present one. Moreover, beauty is that which has real being, but ugliness is the nature opposite to this. It is this that is the first evil; just as beauty is likewise the first of things beautiful and good. Or it may be that goodness and beauty are one and the same. Therefore, we must investigate the beautiful and good, and the ugly and evil, by the same process; and in the highest rank we must place the Beautiful Itself, which is also the Good Itself, of which Intellect is the immediate emanation and the first beautiful thing. But soul is beautiful through Intellect, and other things are beautiful because they, in turn, are formed by the soul, whether it be in actions or in pursuits and studies. And as to bodies, when these are spoken of as beautiful, it is still the soul that makes them so; for she, as something divine, and as it were a portion of the Beautiful Itself, makes beautiful, in so far as its nature will permit, all that she touches and overcomes.
VII. We must ascend, therefore, once more to the Good, which every soul desires. If anyone has beheld It, he will know what I say, and in what manner It is beautiful, for it is as good that It is desired, and all appetency is towards goodness. But the attainment of the Good is for those who mount upward to the heights, set their faces towards them, and strip off the garments with which we clothed ourselves as we descended hither. Just as those who penetrate into the innermost sanctuaries of the mysteries, after being first purified and divesting themselves of their garments, go forward naked, so must the soul continue, until anyone, passing in his ascent beyond all that is separative from God, by himself alone contemplates God alone, perfect, simple and pure, from Whom all things depend, to Whom all beings look, and in Whom they are, and live, and know. For He is the cause of Being, Life and Intelligence. If, then, anyone beheld Him, with what love would he be inspired, with what desire would he burn, in his eagerness to be united with Him! With what bliss would he be overcome! He that has not yet beheld Him may desire Him as Good, but, to him that has, it is given to love Him as Beauty, to be filled with wonder and delight, to be overwhelmed yet unharmed, to love with true love and keen desire, to laugh at other loves, and to despise the things he formerly thought beautiful. Of such a nature is the experience of those who have beheld visions of Gods or angels—no more do they seek aught of the beauty of other bodies. What, then, shall we think of one who beheld The Beautiful Itself and by Itself, pure and untouched by flesh or body, existing neither in earth nor in heaven, because of Its very purity? For all these are contingent things and mixed, nor are they primary but proceed from It. If, therefore, he beheld That which provides for all things, which, remaining in Itself, gives to all and receives nothing into Itself, and if, remaining in the contemplation of This and tasting of Its bliss, he should be assumed into Its likeness, of what other beauty would he then have need? For This, since It is Beauty Itself and the First Beauty, makes those who love It beautiful and beloved. And this is the greatest and ultimate task which lies before the soul, for the sake of which all her toils are undertaken— not to be left without portion in that most sublime vision, to obtain which is to be blessed by the vision of blessedness, but not to obtain it is wretchedness. For not he that has no share of beautiful colours or bodies, or of power or dominion or kingship, is unfortunate; but he that lacks this one thing alone, for the sake of which it were well to let go the possession and kingship and rule of the whole earth and of the sea, aye, and of the heaven itself, if a man, by leaving behind all these and looking beyond them, might be converted to This and behold It.
VIII. What, then, is the way? What are the means? How shall a man behold this ineffable Beauty which remains within, deep in Its holy sanctuaries, and proceeds not without where the profane may view It? He that is able, let him arise and follow into this inner sanctuary, nor look back towards those bodily splendours which he formerly admired. For when we behold the beauties of body we must not hurl ourselves at them, but know them for images, vestiges and shadows, and flee to That of which they are reflections. For if a man rushes towards them, seeking to grasp them for Beauty Itself, then it will be as though he should desire to grasp a beautiful image mirrored in water, and, like him of whom the myth tells, should sink beneath the surface of the stream and disappear. In like manner, he that reaches out after corporeal beauties, and will not let them go, will plunge not his body but his soul into gloomy depths abhorred by intellect, will remain blind in Hades, and both here and hereafter will have converse only with shadows.
How truly might someone exhort us—”Let us, then, fly to our dear country.” What therefore is this flight, and how shall we escape, like Odysseus in the story, from the enchantments of Circe and Calypso? There it tells symbolically how he remained unsatisfied although pleasant spectacles met his eyes and he was surrounded with all the beauty of sense. Our Fatherland is that country whence we came, and there our Father dwells. What, then, are the means for our escape thither? Our feet will not take us there, for all they can do is to carry us from one part of the earth to another. Nor will it avail to make ready horses for a chariot or ships on the sea: all these things we must let go. We must not even look, but with our eyes all but closed we must exchange our earthly vision for another, and awaken that, a vision which all possess but few use.
IX. What, then, does this interior vision see? When it is but lately awakened it cannot behold splendours too dazzling. The soul, therefore, must be accustomed first of all to contemplate beautiful pursuits, and next beautiful works, not those which are executed by craftsmen but those which are done by good men. After this, contemplate the souls of those who are the authors of such beautiful actions. How, then, may you behold the beauty of a virtuous soul? Withdraw into yourself and look; and if you do not yet behold yourself beautiful, do as does the maker of a statue which is to be beautiful; for he cuts away, shaves down, smooths and cleans it, until he has made manifest in the statue the beauty of the face which he portrays. So with yourself. Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labour to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendour of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine. If you have become this, and have beheld it, and dwell within yourself in purity, and there is now nothing which prevents you from thus becoming one, when you have nothing foreign mingled with your interior nature, but your whole self is true light and light alone, not measured by size nor circumscribed by the limitation of any figure, not to be increased in magnitude because unbounded, but totally immeasurable, greater than all measure and mightier than every quantity—if you behold yourself grown to this, having now become vision itself, take courage and ascend yet higher, for now you need a guide no more. Gaze intently and see! This eye alone beholds that mighty Beauty. But if it approach the vision bleared by vices, unpurified, or weak through cowardice, so that it cannot bear to gaze upon such glory, then it sees nothing, even though another should be at hand to point out that which all may see. For he that beholds must be akin to that which he beholds, and must, before he comes to this vision, be transformed into its likeness. Never could the eye have looked upon the sun had it not become sun-like, and never can the soul see Beauty unless she has become beautiful. Let each man first become god-like and each man beautiful, if he would behold Beauty and God. For he will first arrive in his ascent at the region of Intellect and there he will know all the beauties of form, and will say that this is the beauty of Ideas, for all things are beautiful through these, the offspring and essence of Intellect. But that which is beyond Intellect we call the nature of the Good, from which the Beautiful radiates on every side, so that in common speech it is called the First Beauty. But if we distinguish between the Intelligibles, we may say that Intelligible Beauty belongs to the world of Ideas, but that the Good which is beyond these is the fountain and principle of the Beautiful. Or the Good and the First Beauty may be considered under one principle, apart from the beauty of the world of Ideas.
A Christ in sunglasses is nailed to a papier-mâché cross. He is, in fact, not just Jesus, but also Macauley Culkin and Kurt Cobain at once, the triune victim of philistines and a squad of jackbooted, mocking Romans who are dressed as Ronald McDonald. A Xenomorphic version of the clown himself pops out of the hook-handed captain’s chest and fires a lazer at a bleeding-eyed Virgin in a red Wendy’s wig. The good thief is Bill Clinton on a confetti-colored cross. The titulus crucis has been replaced with a cardboard scroll that reads “King of the Cucks.” Before departing, the last fast-food fascist takes a selfie with the Cobain-Christ. And good old George Washington, Oculus Rift still clasped to his head, burns to a crisp in orgiastic entertainment as the virtual sacrifice concludes.
Was this an Ayahuasca trip, a mystic hallucination, or a rather heavy-handed SNL skit?
The answer, of course, is D, none of the above. It’s just another Father John Misty video. This one is entitled “Total Entertainment Forever,” and the track comes from his new release from Sub Pop, Pure Comedy. Father John Misty (alias Josh Tillman) has long produced a body of work at once blasphemous and baffling, though occasionally given to brief bursts of beauty. There is less of this latter quality in his newest album, and it’s sorely missed. Tillman has instead given us a project bloated with its own sense of self-importance and suffocating on its own shallow satirical spite.
Of course, it’s perfectly fine for an artist to mock, to rally, or to critique. Some of the greatest art does all three at once. Take, for instance, that modernist monolith, The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot may have contended for years that it was just “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” but critics of every generation have recognized in the poem a powerful diagnosis of the sickness of Western civilization. Much of Eliot’s “grouse” remains relevant today, in part because, even as he pilloried all kinds of people, he grounded his art in the perennial images of human culture.
Father John Misty, alas, does not. He is content to complain without saying anything all that deep, and without investing his work with the kind of symbolic depth we recognize in Eliot.
The titular track, “Pure Comedy,” sets the mood for the rest of the album. We might as well spend some time looking at the lyrics. They reveal quite a lot about Father John Misty’s priorities and self-perception. Here are the first lines:
The comedy of man starts like this
Our brains are way too big for our mothers’ hips
And so Nature, she divines this alternative
We emerged half-formed and hope that whoever greets us on the other end
Is kind enough to fill us in
And, babies, that’s pretty much how it’s been ever since
The song goes on to announce that mankind’s lot is really just,
Comedy, now that’s what I call pure comedy.
Just waiting until the part where they start to believe
They’re at the center of everything
And some all-powerful being endowed this horror show with meaning
That right there is the little light in the plane that tells us to buckle up and get ready for the hackneyed atheist bits.
Oh, their religions are the best
They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed
With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks, these unbelievable outfits
And they get terribly upset
When you question their sacred texts
Written by woman-hating epileptics
For those of you who didn’t watch the video I linked above, let me save you some time. He’s not talking about Islam and Judaism. Tilman is mainly targeting Catholicism, even if he refrains from becoming explicit about it in the lyrics. Worse, he’s not even terribly original. The verse just distills the common, fedora-tipping New (c. 2006) Atheism of the Internet. Josh Tilman is no Ivan Karamazov.
Tillman has shown a longstanding interest in religious themes, as his previous two album covers demonstrate. He is known to sprinkle his songs with religious allusions. Pure Comedy features a track entitled “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay.” Tillman sings about what he would tell Jesus as the Apocalypse unfolds. He says that he would give Jesus a tour of the world, then says:
Barely got through the prisons and stores
And the pale horse looks a little sick
Says, “Jesus, you didn’t leave a whole lot for me
If this isn’t hell already then tell me what the hell is?”
Tillman, never wary of blasphemy, says to Christ, “And now you’ve got the gall to judge us.” One might point out the irony of Tillman posing as a holier-than-thou moral authority when, just a few lines earlier, he equates prisons and stores. If this fatuous and fundamentally unserious judgment doesn’t betray a warped moral sensibility, then I’m not sure what does.
On a more philosophical note, let me say that it is the prerogative of the artist to explore the bounds of the possible, especially when crafting strange hypotheticals like the one that Tillman imagines. Tillman also works in a long tradition of artists who mediate their work through the careful deployment of personae. His stage-name, Father John Misty, is a good example of this tendency (and a religiously-tinged one at that). But even granting these stipulations about the nature of art, we should remember a third point. All art inherently crafts aesthetic experience and therefore “sets the stage” for a presentation and affective reception of beauty. Insofar as art is bound to beauty, it is necessarily tied to the good and the true as well. Art can deny, flatter, hide, contest, mask, or assail goodness and truth, but it can never be rid of them and their own proper criteria. The problems that arise when we try too hard to make art “good” or “true” are many and easy to identify. But we cannot totally separate the aesthetic world from the moral and scientific spheres of life. An artist whose work displays a perverse moral sensibility may produce great art, but it will be somewhat immoral, and it may not correspond to the way things really are.
But back to “Pure Comedy.”
Perhaps because his criticism of religion/Christianity is so stale, Tillman spices things up a bit in the next verse by trying to be Relevant© and Woke™. Even without watching the video, you can tell that it’s about a certain unsavory Head of State.
Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure
Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?
What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?
These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods
So they can go on being godless animals
It’s not clear whether Tillman lost his faith in humanity because of Trump, or if the Donald’s ascent merely confirmed a longstanding pessimism. One could perhaps sympathize with the latter position, if only because it would be intellectually honest.
But I digress.
We come to the emotional climax of the song.
Oh comedy, their illusions they have no choice but to believe
Their horizons that just forever recede
And how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs
That they never ever have to leave
I would take his point more seriously if it were not a banal and adolescent bastardization of Camus or Rand or Nietzsche or [insert edgelord here]. “Pure Comedy” is not unique in this sense of immaturity. Listening and reading through all the songs, I was repeatedly reminded of angsty teenage poetry. Tillman’s unhappy tendency to be biographical, abstract, and preachy was not nearly as pronounced in his earlier work as Father John Misty (I can’t speak to his releases as J. Tillman).
Unfortunately, the song doesn’t get better from there. In the final verse, Tillman croons,
The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive
But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with
Until there’s nothing human left
Just random matter suspended in the dark
I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got
The idea of our planet being nothing more than a rock in space comes up again and again throughout the album. At the beginning of one track, Tillman calls the earth “this bright blue marble orbited by trash.” It’s Eliot’s “Unreal City,” brought up to date for the space age. But in that last line, we hear the echoes of Auden’s famous poem about the beginning of World War II; “We must love one another or die.” It’s a maudlin sentiment that Auden repented for the rest of his life. One wonders if Tillman will someday look back on the shallow clichés of “Pure Comedy” with the same sense of regret.
The rest of the album continues these themes. Tillman gives us a tour of the imbecility of human nature, especially as manifested by the entertainment industry, pharmaceutical corporations, Republicans, fast food, the religious, Middle America, social media, public intellectuals, and ideologues of all sorts. By the end, the Holden Caulfield act gets old. In most of the songs, the music trundles along aimlessly, neither powerful nor novel enough to sustain Tilman’s puerile lyrics.
All of which is a serious disappointment to someone like me, who’s been a fan for years. You see, this ain’t Father John Misty’s first rodeo in the American Wasteland. His earlier work often treated these same themes, but in a more aesthetically and intellectually sophisticated way. Where in Pure Comedy do we find a song that matches the sultry and haunting sense of doom rippling through “Funtimes in Babylon?” Or the perky, quirky, frenzied mania of “I’m Writing a Novel?” Or the languid malaise of “Bored in The USA?” Or the soulfully earnest and operatically desperate madman’s litany, “Holy Shit,” perhaps Tilman’s finest piece yet? All of these songs work, not just because of their evocative lyrics, but because they are genuine musical accomplishments. Each is a gem of a song in its own way. In each, Tillman flexes the considerable powers of his unique voice. His sound manages to swing seamlessly between a controlled vigor and a vulnerability that shines without brittleness.
The album is not without its strengths. The satire does sometimes land pretty well, as in “Birdie” and “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution” and “Ballad of the Dying Man.” In “The Memo,” Tillman wields his well-refined sense of shock value to drive home an unremittingly cynical take on the entertainment and advertising industries. But perhaps I’m just gravitating to songs that are pretty clearly meant to mock the left establishment or deflate the pretensions of neoliberals and transhumanists.
In “Dying Man,” we hear:
So says the dying man once I’m in the box
Just think of all the overrated hacks running amok
And all of the pretentious, ignorant voices that will go unchecked
The homophobes, hipsters, and 1%
The false feminists he’d managed to detect
Oh, who will critique them once he’s left?
A nice bit of biting sarcasm there. But sadly, Tilman smothers his wit under clunky diction—a verbose, chatty mess apparently composed without any care for euphony. Paired with lackluster music, the song fails.
The only really superlative work in the entire album is Tillman’s flawless penultimate track, “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain.” Here, too, he is commenting on the madness of our times. But he’s left aside the pose of the pontificating prophet. Gone are the grand and sweeping lines about “human nature” as in “When the God of Love Returns.” Gone, too, are the plastic, pop-culture in-jokes that masquerade as hot takes; gone, the pearl-clutching about the woes of consumerism and fast food and the stupid white people who vote Republican and believe in God.
Instead, Tillman tells a story. A New Year’s Eve party has just ended, and the revelry is fading away. One of the guests describes the scene.
That’s it. Observe:
The wine has all been emptied
And smoke has cleared
As people file back to the valley
On the last night of life’s party
These days the years thin till I can’t remember
Just what it feels like to be young forever
Tillman’s more symbolic and sensitive tack suits his message; our age echoes the cultural moment that led Thomas Mann to write The Magic Mountain, and coming to grips with that realization has aged us. His sonic scene-craft evokes universal images and elevates the song into a testament of the human condition. If Tilman intends to speak to our particular cultural moment in Pure Comedy, he succeeds with “Magic Mountain.”
The only real shame is that there weren’t more songs like it on the rest of the album.
Father John Misty, Sub Pop Records, 2017
Of all the myriad forms of visual theology that draw upon the Western traditions of art history, perhaps no medium is quite as neglected as the emblem. The books that contained these small, symbolically rich images constituted a prolific genre in the early modern period. They had a fairly standard format. Usually, the emblems sat alongside a few moral or sacred verses in Latin, Greek, or a European language. Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (1618), from which the image above was taken, is a good example of this polyglot tendency. On the verso, one can find a quatrain in Latin, German, French, and Italian, always connecting the symbolism of the emblem with a French and Italian verse of the Scriptures. On the recto, the emblem sits under the same verse, this time in Latin and German. The page concludes with an epigrammatic prayer in Latin.
It seems that emblem books were popular in early modern Europe. Mara R. Wade of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign writes, “In the preface to his Companion to Emblem Studies (2006) Peter Daly estimates that ca. 6,500 emblem books were published during the Renaissance, with an individual volume containing anywhere from 15 to 1,500 emblems.” Wikipedia lists no fewer than 54 representative titles, though there were certainly many more produced between 1500 and 1800 (as any cursory review of UIUC’s Emblematica Online or the French Emblems at Glasgow archives can show). The fact that these books were often printed with multiple languages of text side by side suggests that they were documents with cross-cultural appeal. They were meant to speak not only to the elites who knew Latin, but also to the literate bourgeoisie. All of that makes their emergence as a genre at a time of religious strife even more remarkable.Of course, not all emblem books were targeted for mass appeal. Occult works often made rich use of emblems. The chief virtue of the emblem is its capacity of succinct complexity. It can communicate a lot by saying very little. It obscures by revealing; it hides by manifestation. As one source puts it, “Emblems are concise yet potent combinations of texts and images that invite, and require, decoding.” This makes the emblem the perfect vehicle for the esoteric proliferation of ideas. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” says the Lord. If He had come in the age of Gutenberg, perhaps He would have delivered His parables in emblem books. Of course, to say so is to implicitly claim Christ as a Protestant. Catholics did produce emblem books; indeed, one of the latest examples I have found is the 1780 French reprint of Dom Bonifaz Gallner’s earlier Regula Emblematica Sancti Benedicti. However, it would seem that the majority of important emblem books flowed from Protestant presses.
There is a good historical and aesthetic reason for this. The emblem functions by setting up a symbol or a system of symbols independent of any text. While text was sometimes used to elucidate the meaning of those symbolic networks, it was always secondary to the image itself. The emblem book is one of the last gasps of the primacy of image over text in European thought. Along with the Wunderzeichenbuchen, the emblem book is one of the main genres mobilized by Continental Protestants to rediscover a non-iconographic (and, to their mind, a non-idolatrous) use of image in moral and spiritual development. Instead of an image asserting its “auratic” power to the exclusion of text, the emblem book suggests a way that text and image can mutually illuminate each other. As Mara Wade writes, the emblem books engendered “a process of reciprocal reading of texts and images, whereby the back and forth between the words and the pictures creates meaning. The picture presents the reader with a recognizable scene or symbolic collage, and the text then reorients the reader’s understanding of that scene to present a new and unexpected message.” In this sense, the emblem book clearly partakes of a distinctly Humanist and Protestant heritage. Note again that emblem books were very often the chosen medium for the quasi-scientific magical teachings of the Rosicrucians and alchemists. Those strange laborers were also, in their own quixotic way, seeking to reclaim something of the sacramental worldview thrown away by the iconoclastic Reformers (see Henry 2015).
The triumph of discursive reason over image in the Enlightenment led to the decline of the emblem book as a genre (there are surely other reasons tied to shifting book markets, but my capacities to do research into textual history are limited at this time). After that, the record has been rather sparse. Hamann occasionally used emblems in his philosophical works. More recent theologians have largely overlooked the emblem book as a theological genre. The single counterexample I can readily think of is Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot, which can only count as an emblem book when we ignore its departures from the traditional form. Yet the renewal of esoteric Catholicism by reliably orthodox publishing houses like Angelico Press suggests that the emblem book may have a place in the theology of the future.
Its revival seems particularly apropos in an age when memes have become topics of serious political discourse, when visual self-representation has been amplified through various social media, and when new norms of communication emphasize brevity over detail. An epoch is defined, in large part, by the relation of its people to their media. The development of the printing press launched early modernity by helping to bring about new conceptions of subjectivity, as well as new questions about the relationship of text and image. Consequently, the emblem book arose to grapple with some of those questions. The next great civilizational step in communication arrived with the internet, accompanying nascent postmodernity. Perhaps we shall see a revival of the emblem book for theologians to navigate this “brave new world.”