Inspired by emblems

In the past thirty years Iconclass has been applied in a series of projects to catalogue emblems, devices and imprese. Some 35,000 individual emblems were catalogued in projects of a.o. the universities of Utrecht, Glasgow, Santiago de Compostella, and Illinois, the Herzog August Bibliothek, the Getty Research Library, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. An important source for the history of early modern mentality, the rich content of emblems from time to time required the expansion of the Iconclass schedules with new concepts. Often those concepts would then also be applied to other types of material as wel. Here are some examples:

31A511111 distortion


While other examples actually show a mirror as the source of the distortion, this emblem - interestingly - refers to the surface of a river as the locus of distortion. The emblem’s pictura shows a fisherman whose catch consists of fish smaller than he thought, fooled as he was by the river’s surface.

Once the concept was added to Iconclass, it turned out to be useful beyond the emblematic domain, for example to tag what is possibly the most famous distorted view in a mirror of all, the mirror in the background of the Arnolfini portrait:


In Vasari’s Life of Francesco Mazzuoli (Parmigianino) we find an interesting reference to the concept of distortion - almost a century after the Arnolfini portrait:

One day he began to paint himself with the help of a concave barber’s mirror. Noticing the curious distortions of the buildings and doors caused by the mirror he conceived the idea of reproducing it all. Accordingly he had a ball of wood made, and cutting it out to make it of the same size and shape as the mirror he set to wirk to copy everything that he saw there, including his own likeness, in the most natural manner imaginable. As things near the mirror appear large while they diminish as they recede he made a hand with wonderful realism, somewhat large, as the mirror showed it. Being a handsome man, with the face of an angel rather than a man, his reflection in this ball appeared divine.


55C5 Sharing and 55CC5 Withholding, keeping to oneself

The idea to add these concepts, specific examples of the 55C Use of Property, was inspired by another emblem from the same book. “Zum nehmen,nicht zu geben” shows a beggar who refuses to share with a fellow beggar the gift he has just received from a lady.


The opposite concept of sharing whatever one possesses, is not just found in emblems, such as this one by Jean Jacques Boissard:


which in turn was based on the Erasmian adage Amicorum omnia communia (between friends all is common)

25H182 ploughed field and 25H183 field filled with a crop

Although the act of ploughing has always been included in the Iconclass schedules, its result - a field with straight furrows, i.e. a ploughed field - has not. It too was added because it is a feature of many emblems, of which this is a random example with Cadmus sowing teeth in the furrows of the field he has ploughed:


The emblem “Der Unentbehrliche” (the indispensable ) sings the praise of flax, the raw material of which linen is made. Its pictura shows a field filled with flax, for which the concept 25H183 field filled with a crop was added to the schedules.