Art + Botany: Botanic Emblemata

Art + Botany: Botanic Emblemata

April 7, 2011
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(Left) O flos sic vernans iuvenili aetate pudorem / Oh how you flourish shyly flower, the modesty of youth

(Right) Flos speculum vitae modo vernat et interat aura / The flower mirrors life; it blooms and perishes in the air

In the late Renaissance, artists of the Low Countries (particularly Germany and the Netherlands) began producing emblemata: allegorical prints with moralising captions. Often collected in a volume, the pairings of realistic illustrations and pithy proverbs were published as emblem books, and became a hugely popular synthesis of beauty and wisdom. The work of Flemish engraver Johann Theodor de Bry (1561-1623) is an excellent example of two contemporary trends: the prevalence of botanic subjects, and Reformation-inspired epigrams. 

In the late 1500s, the illustrator produced a rare series of six still-life floral prints, titled Polyptoton de Flores (The Variance of Flowers). The captions are scripted in Latin hexameter, and derive their lessons from various phases of a plant's life cycle. Exquisitely illustrated in typical Dutch fashion, the ornate vases are decorated with grotesques and garlands, and the detailed bouquets are accompanied by insects and spiders. 

Polyptoton de Flores 2

(Left) Floris imago fugax rapidi nos admonit aevi / The fleeting presence of a flower warns us of a rapid lifetime

(Right) Florem si ostendet feret ipso tempore fructum / Like the flower, we will bear fruit in our own good time

Polyptoton de Flores 3

(Left) A flore accipias honeste vivere discas / The flower teaches us to live honourably

(Right) Flori par invenis tener est crescentibus annis / A flower is like youth in the bloom of life