Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Emblems in Scotland

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben

Michael Bath, Emblems in Scotland: Motifs and Meanings (Leiden: Brill, 2018), ISBN 9789004364059, xxviii+346 pp., $150.00

[1] Mike Bath is one of the world’s leading scholars of Renaissance emblem books, a distinguished contributor to this journal (here and here and here) whose work has pioneered the study of these complex visual texts across multiple geographies and literary genres. In this book, Professor Bath presents exciting new work together with revised and updated versions of some of his most important earlier publications addressing the contexts of early modern Scotland – a significantly under-studied field. This is why this book is so important. Hardly any emblem books were produced in Scotland or by Scots – in fact, while Esther Inglis’s version of Emblemes Chrestiens (1624) shows what could be achieved by Scottish literary artists working in manuscript, the two books published in London in 1638 by Robert Farley might be “the only known emblem books written by a Scottish author.” Nevertheless, emblem books were a staple of the literary culture of the northern Renaissance, as the world’s largest archive of these items, the Stirling Maxwell Collection at the University of Glasgow, attests. And, as Professor Bath argues, the importance of emblem books ranged far beyond print culture, into the decoration of stately homes, and far beyond the early modern, into the textual and visual work of Scottish modernism through the achievements of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Professor Bath approaches his subject with authority and verve. His survey of the field, Speaking pictures: English emblem books and Renaissance culture (1994), has become a defining work, and essential reading for anyone thinking about the combination of visual and literary forms in the period of early print. He has focused on the architectural influence of emblems in Renaissance decorative painting in Scotland (2003), and, in Emblems for a Queen: The needlework of Mary Queen of Scots (2008), showed how these visual texts were developed by a single individual, whose work he recognises as “undoubtedly the richest, most extensive, and perhaps also the most sophisticated historical artefacts to use emblems in a Scottish context.” Lavishly illustrated, and with some two hundred mainly colour plates, Emblems in Scotland: Motifs and Meanings is a defining statement of analysis and criticism in the important but often difficult genre through which complex combinations of images and ideas circulated in the northern Renaissance.

[2] Emblems in Scotland does a thorough job of describing and analysing its sources. In many ways, the small number of Scottish emblem books is surprising. These books were incredibly popular across early modern Europe, and one of the few genres that transcended its confessional politics (while still being put to confessional and other forms of sectional use). Around six thousand of these books are identified as discrete items in the most recent bibliographical work. But the influence of emblems extended far beyond the printed page. The genre’s combination of Latin motto, symbolic picture, and a “more-or-less explanatory moralising epigram” can be traced in very surprising locations. These locations include the Church of St Marnock, in Fowlis Easter, Angus, in which there is preserved a fifteenth-century painting that includes a figure of a jester in a scene of the crucifixion, which demonstrates, among other things, the strong connections between visual traditions in Scotland and across Europe. Professor Bath also comments upon the visual texts in Huntingtower, formerly Castle Ruthven, near Perth, the site of the “Ruthven raid,” in which the young James VI was kidnapped and the protestant reformation secured, the description of which by the Covenanter historian David Calderwood concludes with an emblematic motto. Alexander Seton’s country house, built in 1613 on lands that had belonged to Dunfermline Abbey, and on the site of the battle of Pinkie that began the period of “Rough wooing,” was designed as part of a larger project of cultural neo-stoicism, with a famous painted ceiling that gestures towards and even reproduces images from emblem books that reinforce the building’s architectural message. This chapter is a tour-de-force exposition of Seton’s interiors, that maps their design elements onto the huge variety of emblem books by which they were inspired, and locates the meaning of these elements within the theological and political disputes of the early seventeenth century. Emblems in Scotland goes on to consider the use made of emblem books by Scottish Presbyterians, participating in a European discourse while articulating specific doctrinal and historical points. After all, Professor Bath explains, Scottish Protestants “associated the circulation of emblems with the promulgation of reformed doctrines.” In fact, for many readers, emblem books were a distinctively protestant genre. Yet emblem work depended upon bricolage, and Professor Bath excels in tracing the surprisingly ecumenical routes by which ideas and images turned up in mottos and symbolic pictures that were put to confessional use. A chapter on court festivals and royal baptisms, for example, works from a case study of the masque performed to celebrate the baptism of the future James VI in 1566 to trace the idea that the English had tails backwards to the Scottish headquarters of the Knights Hospitallar and forwards into Andrew Marvell’s The loyal Scot (1667).

[3]  Emblems in Scotland is an outstanding contribution to the study of a genre that scholars from multiple disciplines often find elusive. This superb achievement consolidates its author’s standing in the field, while opening up some important new questions as to the valency of these enigmatic “speaking pictures.”

Queen’s University Belfast, March 2020

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