English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

September 23, 2009

Speaking of the ideological power of images and of iconoclasm…

Filed under: Key terms,Sites to check out — charleshatfield @ 5:46 pm

On 30 September 2005, the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten [The Jutland Post] published twelve satirical cartoons relating to the subject of Islam, most of them purporting to depict the prophet Muhammad. According to the paper, this was done to call attention to the dangers of self-censorship and inspire healthy political debate. Do you remember what happened next?

Muslim community in Montreal protests the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, 2/11/06

Counter-protestors at unindentified event (date and setting unknown)

AP news photo reportedly taken 27 Feb. 2008 in Sudan at a protest rally

Wikipedia has a remarkably thorough and well-sourced article on this subject:


Also, BBC News has a useful timeline of the controversy:


Back on Feb. 20, 2006, The Nation ran an insightful interview with cartoonists Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman:


Controversy erupted again recently when Yale University Press announced that its forthcoming book about the controversy, Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook the World, would not actually feature the images that started it all. Check out articles from the Al Arabiya news channel, the British newspaper The Guardian, and Bookseller.com, and this opinion piece from the American Association of University Professors.

The Cartoons That Shook the World, forthcoming from Yale UP

Journalist Tom Spurgeon runs periodic updates on these stories at The Comics Reporter.

What are emblems? (Prof. CH posts)

Filed under: Contexts & resources,Key terms,Sites to check out — charleshatfield @ 12:12 pm

Pages from Alciato's "Emblematum" (1534 Paris edition)

The emblem was a popular devotional and didactic genre during the Renaissance. It tended to be small and intimate in character: emblems might be worn on one’s person, for example, or displayed in a room, or read and studied on a personal level via emblem books. For our purposes, we may say that the emblem, which typically combined a printed image with a brief poetic text, anticipated other forms of imagetext that we’ll be studying.

The vogue for emblem books began in 1531 with Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems, a collection of 212 emblem poems in Latin. (Surprisingly, it is said that Alciato’s emblems were originally unillustrated — what are now called emblemata nuda — but that the publisher put the poems together with images.)

For a more precise understanding of emblems, we might start with this capsule description from the Glasgow University Emblem Website (at the U. of Glasgow in Scotland):

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. Along with personal imprese — devices that expressed the values or aspirations of a particular individual rather than a general moral — emblems communicate moral, political, or religious values in ways that have to be decoded by the viewer. 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.

The German Emblem book project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (whose OpenEmblem P0rtal is an important scholarly resource) describes the emblem book as follows:

Emblem books can possibly be looked upon as the multi-medial publications of the 17th and 18th centuries… Each emblem is composed of three constitutive elements — a motto, an illustration or “pictura” in the form of a woodcut or engraving, and an explanatory poem or “subscriptio.” A single book may have any number of emblems, ranging from just ten to almost 1,500 [I have read that around 100 is a typical figure — CH]. An emblem is more than the sum of its parts, because the interplay between text and image produces a greater meaning than any of the individual components can provide. An individual emblem, therefore, comprises more than just the pictura, but rather all three parts: motto, pictura, and subscriptio [my emphases]. Emblems were often thought to be hieroglyphs, riddles or even mysterious messages containing secrets…Their interpretation and understanding relied on the wit, knowledge and ability of the reader to combine clues in the text and image to produce meaning.

Emblems had a wide cultural reach, high and low, and the study of emblems has potential significance for many other fields of study. Consider, for example, this abstract for an article about emblems in relation to drama, titled “Emblematic Pictures for the Less Privileged in Shakespeare’s England,”  written by Elizabeth Truax and published in the journal Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No.1 (Spring 1995):

The imaginations of the public Renaissance England were influenced by the religious and symbolic imagery embodied in sets of emblem books published during the period. These books were characterized by a motto illustrated by a picture and explained in an allegorical piece of verse. The symbols were also reproduced in inns and the rooms of public houses as well as heraldic devices. William Shakespeare regularly referred to the symbols contained in these books for his own religious and allegorical allusions, allowing the public to recognize metaphors that he used in his own plays.

The popular lexicon of images created by emblems obviously resonated on other levels of artistic production. As we move toward the study of William Blake (mentioned in today’s Mitchell reading, as Keli and Chrissy note), we should consider the extent to which Blake extended, adapted, and/or rejected the emblem book tradition. On that score, you might consider Karl Josef Höltgen’s article, “William Blake and the Emblem Tradition,” which appeared in the 2/2002 issue of the online journal Erfurt Electronic Studies in English.

Other important sources regarding emblems include:

BTW, a subject search for “emblems” in our library catalog yields some interesting results!

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