Curious Inspiration

I promised to write more about the story behind my embroidered picture Curis Tabescimus Omnes.

Curis Tabescimus Omnes unframed

I know I’d heard of “Emblem Books” as one of the many influences on Elizabethan and Stuart embroidery design, along with herbals and bestiaries. I’d never researched them further, having assumed that Emblem Books were books of heraldry and coats of arms. A couple of years ago, I was doing a web search for some Latin tag that had come up in my reading. I don’t recall which scrap of Latin it was now, because I got totally distracted. I found myself on the contents page of an online copy of an emblem book, Geffrey Whitney’s book A Choice of Emblems from 1586. Fascinated, I browsed some of the pictures and soon came across this one


Such a strange picture. What was going on? Who was the reclining figure in the foreground? Who was falling into the volcano? Who was the person in the toga, watching and not apparently trying to help? The accompanying verse explained a little, but left me with even more questions.

If griping greifs, have harbour in thie breste,
And pininge cares, lay ſeige vnto the ſame,
Or ſtraunge conceiptes, doe reaue thee of thie reſt,
And daie, and night, doe bringe thee out of frame:
Then chooſe a freinde, and doe his counſaile craue,
Leaſt ſecret ſighes, doe bringe vntimelie graue.

Continuall care, did PLINIES harte poſſeſſe,
To knowe what cauſde VESEVVS hill to flame,
And ceaſed not, now this, nowe that, to geſſe:
Yet, when hee coulde not comprehende the ſame,
Suche was his fate, purſuing his deſier,
He headlonge fell into the flaming fier.

The title translates roughly as ‘Worry Wears us All Away’ – not, as I’d assumed, some variation of ‘Curiosity Killed the Philosopher’. I was determined to do some more digging to answer some of those questions, but my immediate reaction was to turn the picture into an embroidery. In silk. In chain stitch.

I had to scale the picture to suit the technique, and it was obvious that I would not be able to get the whole image into the embroidery without it becoming very large. So I took the part that had first caught my eye,the upper right-hand section. I left out the enigmatic winged figure.

While I was working this piece – which took eighteen months, on and off – I did some more research. The picture is not original to Geoffrey Whitney’s book – he used a woodcut that originally appeared in Emblemata by Joanne Sambucus in 1564. Both of these books are online, along with many others in various European languages. If you are interested in strange images as inspiration, a couple of good places to start are Emblem Books at Pennsylvania State University Libraries (which includes Whitney) and Glasgow University’s French Emblem Book collection (which has Sambucus). Or simply search for ‘Emblem Books’ or ‘Emblemata’ and look at the images that come up.

I soon found out what really happened to Pliny the Elder – here’s a very readable translation of a letter written by his nephew, Pliny the Younger to Tacitus. Not quite as melodramatic an end as the woodcut version, but still a very tragic story. The French verse in the Sambucus book makes an oblique mention of a philosopher-poet called Empedocles who, according to legend, threw himself into Mount Etna in the hope that his rivals would assume that he’d been taken to the heavens by the gods. The gods, not being that much enamoured of his poetry, or his cheek, made the volcano spit out his sandals which gave the game away.  Sambucus suggests that Pliny should have remembered this legend.

The final mystery took more sleuthing, but I eventually found out that the reclining figure in front is Melancholia – the subject of Dürer’s famous engraving Melencolia I. It was a popular print in Europe at the time, and the winged figure with a compass would have been understood as a symbol. That version of Melancholia (there were supposed to be three different types), was not so much a spirit of gloom as a genius of creative pondering – the staring into space that makes connections and sparks bright ideas. Dürer shows her sitting amid magic squares, geometric figures and other scientific discoveries. (An elusive goddess when you need her. It’s easy to try too hard to have ideas and find the well of inspiration dry. Embroidery is one of the best ways I know of getting that creative flow going again. For me at least, it’s a wonderful way to get into the right state of mind without forcing things. )

I am sure I will be coming back to these old emblem books for more inspiration for embroidery in the future. With their bizarre images, they are a wonderful resource. The verses and stories are intriguing too – tales and morals from fables, legends, history and much more. I am very glad to have finally got around to looking at them. Have any of you also explored emblem books? Do you have a favourite emblem book image? Have you used them in art or craft work? If you haven’t seen these remarkable old books, you’ve missed something rather wonderful. Go and look!


6 Responses to “Curious Inspiration”

  1. I wonder whether the original designers of the woodcuts would ever have imagined their work being re-imagined in embroidery!

    • suetortoise Says:

      I doubt that they would have been very surprised – the ‘pattern-drawers’ also raided herbals, bestiaries and popular prints for inspiration. These books were designed to be attractive to the eye. In a world where printed matter was quite rare, anything that could be used would be pounced on – or even prick-and-pounced on if the stitcher was too lazy to trace or square-up.

      Some book owners would have coloured the pictures, or had them coloured, to make a valuable possession more valuable and more attractive. The Sambucus illustrations do have the look of designs where colouring-in was half-expected from the outset.

  2. “Melancholia (there were supposed to be three different types), was not so much a spirit of gloom as a genius of creative pondering ” – that’s really interesting. I can see the spirit of creativity being female. Do the other 2 versions of Melancholia represent doomed vision, and if so – are they women as well?

    • suetortoise Says:

      If you go to the Wikipedia page for Melencolia I, it will tell you a lot more than I can. The idea of the three types of Melancholia came from Cornelius Agrippa, but I don’t think Dürer engraved the other two. This was obviously the one that appealed to him – and to the spirit of the times.

  3. What a fabulous piece of embroidery. Well worth the time it took. We really must get together for a cup of coffee one day. When My Tonight From Shrewsbury finishes at the end of the year would probably be best as I’ll have a bit more time. I’d like to show you my tapestries. We have a lot of interests in common.

    • suetortoise Says:

      Yes, that would be good – I’d love to pop in and see your tapestries, Pauline. After Christmas would suit me better, too.

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