LRS Newsletter

The Library of Renaissance Symbolism

“Moreover, if for the administration of the sacraments, certain symbolisms are drawn, not only from the heavens and stars, but also from all the lower creation, the intention is to provide the doctrine of Salvation with a sort of eloquence, adapted to raise the affections of those to whom it is presented from the visible to the invisible, from the corporeal to the spiritual, from the spiritual to the eternal.” St. Augustine

St. Augustine was the greatest Christian theologian of the first millenium and in his vast literary output of more than five million words he touches on the nature of signs and symbols. In the quotation above he points out two aspects of the symbol: that it is a language (“a sort of eloquence”) and that this language can bring understanding of spiritual and eternal things.

In his De Doctrina Christiana Augustine begins his discussion on the theoretical nature of signs by dividing them into two categories, natural signs such as smoke which signifies a fire and intentional signs which includes signs made by man and those made by God. These last two are what he calls symbols. He also draws attention to the fact that some things are not signs at all but are just propria, they are nothing but themselves. An example would be an inert log of wood.

But in his De Trinitate Augustine initiated a different tradition. He says that everything in this world, every element of the natural world, is a symbol of God and that a study of the symbolism of nature can lead to an understanding of the Divine.

Augustine’s separate treatment of these two aspects of the symbol are the origin of two separate traditions in medieval philosophy which caused difficulty not to say confusion amongst later medieval and Renaissance writers.



The Physiologus, which is usually translated as “the Naturalist”, was one of the most widely circulated books of the Middle Ages. Originating as a Greek text in Alexandria probably during the 3rd to 4th centuries CE, the anonymous author drew on the descriptions of animals by earlier Greek and Roman authors and deduced a moral from each description. It was soon adopted by the Church as a vehicle for simple moral or spiritual teaching. Over the centuries it was translated into most European languages including Latin, Icelandic, Armenian and Ethiopian and as time went on, the text was expanded and it became the forerunner of the medieval Bestiary. Such was its popularity that it has been said that the Physiologus singlehandedly set back the development of the natural sciences as we know them by 1,000 years. The Bestiary can be distinguished from the Physiologus by the expansion of the number of animals treated, the addition of images and a change in tone from spiritual to moral interpretations of the symbolic message.

Physiologus 1587: The Lion

The Lion-cub is born dead and blind but he is brought back to life after three days when the lion breathes on him. Another characteristic of the lion is that he sleeps with his eyes open to watch for the hunter. Interpretation: The three days represents the time that Christ remained in the tomb and the moribund lion-cub represents non-believers before they are baptized and brought back to life by the Holy Spirit.

The original version of the Physiologus was anonymous but later it was ascribed to various authors including St. Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus in the 4th century CE and it was this version that became the first printed Greek edition of the modern era. The editio princeps of 1587 by Zanetti and Rufinelli in Rome was immediately followed by the 1588 edition of Plantin in Antwerp. Both editions were edited by Ponce de Leon the cubicularius, or personal assistant, to the Pope and both editions describe just twenty animals in 25 chapters. De Leon says he used three manuscripts to prepare the edition but these were so debased that he had to omit eleven chapters altogether (the original Greek version had between 40 and 48 chapters). Sbordone in his classic exposition reviews seventy-seven mss. of the work but is nevertheless taken to task by Perry who shows that Sbordone missed several of the critical ones including the earliest one in Greek from the 10th century which is now in the Morgan Library as Morgan 397. The edition of 1587, a print copy of which is in the Library of Symbolism, has woodcuts by a contemporary Italian artist and the 1588 edition has copper-plate engravings by Pieter van der Borcht. This latter edition is fully described here. Each chapter of these editions has a Description and Interpretation in Greek with a Latin translation and Notae or commentary by de Leon

In its old age the beak of the eagle grows curved and its eyes cloud over so that it cannot see or eat. Thereupon it breaks its beak on a high rock and immerses itself in cold water, looking at the sun. The obstruction in its eyes fall away and it is revived. Intepretation: although we are oppressed by our many sins, washed by God’s tears, and enlivened by the divine rays, we shall be received into the company of the faithful.

Physiologus 1587: The Eagle

Physiologus 1587: The Peacock

The Peacock is the most boastful of animals since his body and wings are so beautiful. But when he looks at his feet he calls out for they are not like the rest of his body. Interpretation: man delights in the good things of life but calls out to God when reminded of his sin.

Both the Physiologus and the Bestiary took their place with the other books of animal symbolism of the Renaissance: the Beast Epics (such as the Roman de Renart), the Volucaries (such as Jean de Cuba’s Jardin de Santé) and Emblem books (such as Camerarius’ Symbolorum & Emblematum Centuria, a Century of Symbols and Emblems). The encyclopaedic Historia Animalium, the History of Animals, by Konrad Gesner, is often reckoned to be the first modern work of zoology, but even here each of his descriptions was prefaced with a symbolic interpretation of the animal he was describing. The last part of this vast tome was published in 1587, that is contemporaneously with de Leon’s Physiologus although in his list of sources Gesner describes this latter as by an 'author obscurus'.

The Physiologus was finally reprinted in 1618 in Nicholas Caussin’s De Symbolica Aegyptorum Sapienta (On the Symbolic Wisdom of the Egyptians) although Caussin’s enthusiasm for the text was apparently limited. His commentary is confined to just one of the animals described.

Bibliography: Fr. Sbordone, Physiologus Rome: Albrighi, 1936; Alan Scott The Date of the Physiologus in Vigiliae Christianae, 52, 4 (Nov., 1998), pp. 430-441; Michael J. Curley Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore University of Chicago Press, 2009; B. E. Perry Physiologus ed. F. Sbordone in American Journal of Philology 1937, 58.


Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008

Giordano Bruno is a difficult figure to tie down. He wrote nearly thirty provocative books on magic, the Art of Memory, signs, astronomy and mathematics and it is not surprising that in such output and diversity the authorities were easily able to find evidence of heresy. Rowland is not able to point to any overarching system in Bruno’s thinking but she does give a wonderful picture of the wandering maverick constantly running from persecution or from people he had offended. I like to think that his travels were a restless but hopeless urge to find solutions, perhaps a single unifying solution, to the problems of existence and of our relationship with God. But one cannot help feeling sympathy with someone who is obstinate enough to allow himself to be burned for his unorthodox beliefs but can close one of his books (De imaginum, signorum et idearum compositione) with the admonition. “Stay well, and love anyone who esteems you”


There is a wonderful online exhibit of Bestiaries and related material here at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France: [LINK].

The British Library has images and description of a manuscript of the allegorical poem the Roman de la Rose: [LINK].

The Hungarian National Library has an interesting description of the Hungarian Angevin Legendary – a version of the Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend), the classic text which gives the symbolic attributes of saints, follows "virtual exhibitions": [LINK].

The two links in the events section of the last newsletter were somehow omitted. Here they are again:

Newton in the National Library of Israel: [LINK]
Festival books in the British Library: [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.

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