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Instagram had a medieval equivalent – and it’s making a comeback


Emblems were to the Early Modern world what comics, logos or adverts are to us. Like the ones in Délie, they would traditionally put together a title or motto with a picture, revealing an enigmatic overall message when you read them together.  The term comes from the title of Andrea Alciato’s 1531 Emblematum liber (“Book of Emblems”), starting a genre that is also well represented by Daniël Heinsius' love meditation Emblemata Amatoria in 1601 (see title image). These emblems appeared in books – popular books, bestsellers even – but also on the costumes of courtly parades, on the decorations of churches and schools and inscribed on the palaces of Europe. Hundreds of years before the internet, these visual representations crossed cultural frontiers. And emblems were arguably no less powerful: Protestants and Catholics used them, as did princes and pornographers.
Those who love books are said to share the belief that life is an imperfect vision of reality and only art, like a pair of reading glasses, can correct it. For those who need glasses of this type, Glasgow University library might be a good place to hang out. Its special collections department has recently acquired a series of mysterious old books, including the missing link in one of its collections, the 1564 edition of the Délie, the chef d’oeuvre by the French Renaissance poet Maurice Scève (c1500-c1564).

Scève’s Délie could be described as the best ever collection of poetry that nobody understands. The arcane verses are peppered with text/image riddles known as emblems that tease the reader seeking final meaning: a maiden stroking a unicorn, the Tower of Babel, the ivy-covered wall, the rising dead, a moth to the candle, among many others. The ultimate message? Perhaps that love conquers all, in this case that of the eponymous character, who is possibly meant to represent the beauty that is art.

Nowadays it is Instagram and Facebook that satiate our taste for short messages that play on a picture. In the same way that the likes of Scève’s unicorn helped previous generations grasp the bigger questions, such as the passing of beauty or the inevitability of death, Instagram postings will often be musings on the nature of the lives we lead. It seems that there is something eternal at work, something beyond profits and price tags. Then, now and always, decipher these messages and we can solve life’s imperfect vision of reality.

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