LRS Newsletter

The Library of Renaissance Symbolism

A symbol in its mystical sense is a "form of representation that is no mere mechanical replication of the world, that is transformative and opens up a realm beyond rational experience, that exists simultaneously as a concrete thing and as an abstract and perhaps transcendental truth and that conveys a unique density of meaning." Peter T. Struck Birth of the Symbol Princeton, 2004 p.3

There are now more than 2,000 books in more than forty categories recorded in the Library at We continue to add more titles and have started a new division – important modern commentaries and scholarship. The library is a short title catalog giving author, title, city of publication, publisher/printer and date and in many cases brief descriptions of each book. Additional meta-data is included in the underlying database.

The aim of the Library is threefold: to catalog all the books published in the 16th and 17th centuries within the field or provide links to other complete lists, to foster interest in Renaissance literary symbolism and to explore the complex origins of the subject.

This Newsletter will be issued on a regular basis and will contain anecdotes of interest, essays on literary topics, book reviews and notices of relevant events.



The Emperor with his Menagerie

The image shown at the head of this Newsletter is Dürer’s Ehrenpforte or Triumphal Arch, the largest woodcut ever made. Consisting of 192 separate printed blocks, it measures 11½ feet high x 9½ wide and was commissioned by the Emperor Maximilian 1st. The design was completed in 1515 and the cutting of the blocks took another 2 years. 700 copies were made for the first edition but very few survive. The block on the right showing the Emperor with his Menagerie is at the very top of the Arch on the front of the Cupola and the symbolism of this Menagerie is the subject of this note.

Pirckheimer by Dürer

The Menagerie which does not at first sight seem to reflect appropriately the accoutrements of a mighty Emperor includes a bull, a cockerel, a star, a crane, two snakes, double-headed eagles, two birds, a lion, a dog, papyrus rolls and a pair of disembodied feet. What do they all mean and where did they come from? Well, one of Dürer’s best friends was a man called Willibald Pirckheimer who was a wealthy lawyer and humanist of the time from Nuremberg. This is a portrait of him also by Dürer (from Wikipedia). In 1512 Pirckheimer had translated the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, that sensational Greek text originally from the 4th century CE which in turn purported to be a translation from the Egyptian of some 189 hieroglyphs. It was sensational since it appeared to the humanists of the Renaissance that they had finally found evidence of the original Adamic language, the language in which word and meaning, signifier and signified, were one and the same.

The original manuscript of the Hieroglyphica had been discovered in Greece in 1419 and brought to Italy where it found its way into the library of the Medicis now the Laurentian Library in Florence where it still is as Ms. Plut. 69, 27. (For the history of the various mss. of the Hieroglyphica in the 15th century see Giehlow p. 19 n. 4 and p. 24 n. 2). The first printed edition of the Greek text had been by Aldus in 1505. Pirckheimer’s Latin translation of the Hieroglyphica was never published, but it was at least partially illustrated by – guess who? – Dürer and it turns out that the animals in Maximilian’s Menagerie all depict hieroglyphs from Horapollo’s book.

Since hieroglyphics is a language the Menagerie is more than just a picture it is also an inscription which reads as follows: A prince (dog with a stole) of great piety (the star on the crown), most magnanimous, powerful and courageous (the lion), ennobled by eternal fame (basilisk in the crown), descended from an ancient lineage (papyrus rolls), Roman Emperor (the double headed eagles), endowed with the gifts of nature, art and learning (the dew descending from the sky), master of a great part of the realms of the Earth (snake encircling the scepter), with warlike strength and discretion (bull), a mighty conqueror (falcon on the orb), over the king shown here (cockerel on the serpent), the watchful protector (the crane) from the impossible schemes (the two feet) of that enemy.

Dürer’s drawing of the symbol
of the prince in the mauscript
of Pirckheimer

How about that for an encomium! The only symbols not in Horapollo are the double headed eagles and the cockerel which symbolizes France in a pun on the Latin gallus = cock and Gaul. The inscription is translated from the Latin of Pirckheimer and also given in Panofsky and the remainder of the Arch contains dozens more symbols from Horapollo and other sources. There were many more editions of the Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica published over the next century but the Ehrenpforte was a spectacular starting point for the enormous influence of his book in particular and hieroglyphics in general over the art and culture of post-Renaissance Europe.

Bibliography: Karl Giehlow Die Hieroglyphenkunde des Humanismus in der Allegorie der Renaissance in the Jahrbuh der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses 1915, XXXII, 1-218; Ludwig Volkmann Bilderschriften der Renaissance: Hieroglyphik und Emblematik in ihren Beziehungen und Fortwirkungen, Leipzig, 1923; George Boas The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, New York, 1950: Eerik Iversen The Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphics in European Tradition Copenhagen, 1961; Erwin Panofsky The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer Princeton, 1943.


The Birth of the Symbol by Peter R. Struck from which the epigraph above is taken is a well-written and beautifully produced book from Princeton University Press. Subtitled "Authors at the limit of their text" it describes the origin and development of the thread of classical literature which was concerned with symbolic and allegorical interpretation. Strunk contrasts this interpretative tradition with the oratorical tradition of Aristotle for whom allegory was merely a flaw in the clarity to which all authors should aspire. He describes the meaning of and the differences between the words symbolon, allegoria, hyponoia and enigma in early Greek usage and follows the development of the literary symbol through to the Neoplatonists. The book serves to as an admirable historical foundation to later studies of the symbol.


253 digitized Renaissance festival books (selected from over 2,000 in the British Library's collection) that describe the magnificent festivals and ceremonies that took place in Europe between 1475 and 1700. [LINK]

Newton was a product of his time and in addition to his scientific achievements he had an abiding interest in alchemy and the symbolic interpretation of the scriptures. Shown here in the National Library of Israel for the first time are one half of his surviving mss on these subjects (the other half is in King’s College, Cambridge). [LINK]

Future editions of the Newsletter will contain: Stories from the first English edition of Poggio’s Facetiae; Epigrams hidden in a 16th century manuscript; Fables and the Lives of Aesop; Rebuses in the 16th century; All about Enigmas; And much, much more.

Contributions of text to the Newsletter, including Articles; Reviews, Notes or Events or contributions of bibliographic material to the Library are welcome and will be properly acknowledged in their place. For how to contribute see The Library now offers Research and Book locating services. For details see For general correspondence email For comments on the web site email Also on Twitter at and Facebook at