Thursday, May 8, 2008

A Pair of Emblems

A week ago I noted that the Pompeii mosaic would have been at home in a 16th- or 17th-century book of emblems. Here are two very different images that convey the same basic message, taken from two of my favorite emblem books. The first comes from Otto van Veen’s Emblemata Horatiana, and the motto of the emblem is Mortis Certitudo.

It makes no difference whether you're wealthy,
born a descendant of ancient Inachus,
or whether you live out in the open,
a poor man and of a humble family—
[you're still] the prey of pitiless Orcus.
We're all driven to the same end, sooner or later
our ticket will come out of the upturned jar,
destined to put us in [Charon's] boat
for a never-ending exile.
(Quintus Horatius Flaccus, Ode 2.3)

Otto Vaenius, Q. Horatii Flacci Emblemata (1612)

The ranks of man are illustrated with exemplars. Death is personified and his lottery is shown in the most literal fashion possible. So too is Charon's boat, the river Styx, and the eternal rewards and punishments on the other side. The second example comes from George Withers' Collection of Emblemes. (The images were created by Crispin van Passe for a different emblem book, a couple decades earlier.)

Mors Aequat Sceptra Ligonibus. This is a much more direct parallel with the Pompeii mosaic, being symbolic rather than an allegorical scene. All the ranks of Mankind are illustrated by only two symbols, one representing the highest and the other the lowest. But the message is the same: "For when his fatal blow Death comes to strike, he makes the beggar and the king alike."

George Wither, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635)