Definitions

emblem'atical

Emblem

[em-bluhm]

An emblem is a pictorial image, abstract or representational, that epitomizes a concept — e.g., a moral truth, or an allegory — or that represents a person, such as a king or saint.

Distinction: emblem and symbol

The words emblem and symbol often appear interchangeably in day-to-day conversation without causing undue confusion. A distinction between the two may seem unnecessarily fastidious. Nevertheless, an emblem is a pattern that is used to represent an idea, or an individual. An emblem crystallizes in concrete, visual terms some abstraction: a deity, a tribe or nation, a virtue or a vice. An emblem is an object or a representation of an object.

An emblem may be worn or otherwise used as an identifying badge. A real or metal cockle shell, the emblem of St James the Apostle, sewn onto the hat or clothes identified a medieval pilgrim to his shrine at Santiago de Compostela. In the Middle Ages, many saints were given emblems, which served to identify them in paintings and other images: St Catherine had a wheel, or a sword, St Anthony Abbot a pig and a small bell. These are also called attributes, especially when shown carried by or in close proximity to the saint in art. Kings and other grand persons increasingly adopted personal devices or emblems that were distinct from their family heraldry. The most famous include Louis XIV of France's sun, the salamander of Francois I, the boar of Richard III of England and the armillary sphere of Manuel I of Portugal. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century there was a fashion, started in Italy, for making large medals with a portrait head on the obverse and the emblem on the reverse; these would be given to friends and as diplomatic gifts. Pisanello produced many of the earliest and finest of these.

In current American usage, police officers' badges refer specifically to their personal metal emblem — sometimes with a uniquely identifying number or name on it — while the woven emblems sewn on their uniforms identify all the members of a particular unit.

A symbol substitutes one thing for another, in a more concrete fashion:

  • The Christian cross is a symbol of the Crucifixion; it is an emblem of sacrifice.
  • The Red Cross is a symbol of the International Red Cross. A red cross on a white flag is the emblem of the humanitarian spirit.
  • The crescent shape is a symbol of the moon; it is an emblem of Islam.
  • The skull and crossbones is an symbol identifying a poison. The skull is an emblem of the transitory human life.

Other terminology

A totem is specifically an animal emblem that expresses the spirit of a clan. Heraldry knows its emblems as charges. The lion passant serves as the emblem of England, the lion rampant as the emblem of Scotland.

An icon consists of an image (originally a religious image), that has become standardized by convention. A logo is an impersonal, secular icon, usually of a corporate entity.

Emblems in history

Since the 15th century the terms of emblem (emblema) and emblematura belong to the termini technici of architecture. They mean an iconic painted, drawn, or sculptural representation of a concept affixed to houses and belong — like the inscriptions — to the architectural ornaments (ornamenta). Since the publication of De architectura libri decem by Leon Battista Alberti (14041472) the emblems (emblema) are related to Egyptian hieroglyphics and are considered as being a secret iconic language. Therefore the emblems belong to the Renaissance knowledge of antiquity which comprises not only Greek and Roman antiquity but also Egyptian antiquity as proven by the numerous obelisks built in 16th and 17th century Rome.

The 1531 publication in Augsburg of the first emblem book, the Emblemata of the Italian jurist Andrea Alciato launched a fascination with emblems that lasted two centuries and touched most of the countries of western Europe. "Emblem" in this sense refers to a didactic or moralizing combination of picture and text intended to draw the reader into a self-reflective examination of his or her own life. Complicated associations of emblems could transmit information to the culturally-informed viewer, a characteristic of the 16th century artistic movement called Mannerism.

See also

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