Otto Vaenius and his Emblem Books builds upon the earlier thematic collections in the Glasgow Emblem Studies series, while also representing a step in a somewhat different direction: a closer look at a single author. This focus is justified on multiple grounds. Though most often recalled as the teacher of Peter Paul Rubens, Otto Vaenius or Van Veen (1556-1629) is widely regarded as one of the most influential practitioners in the emblem genre in seventeenth-century Europe. His reputation rests on three capital works – Emblemata Horatiana (1607), Amorum Emblemata (1608) and Amoris Divini Emblemata (1615) – whose popularity and influence can be measured not only by the number of reprints and translations both during his lifetime and beyond, but also by their numerous adaptations in prints, paintings, and other objects in the material culture of the period.
Sudies on this artist’s work to date have focused largely on his best known works. The most sustained study, Die Liebesemblematik des Otto van Veen by Anne Buschhoff (2004) addressed mainly the iconographic and literary sources, as well as the semantic characteristics of his sacred and secular emblems of love. Margit Thøfner has written several essays on subjects such as Van Veen’s mystical leanings, his approach to invention, and the collaborative practices associated with his emblem creations. Walter S. Melion and Ralph Dekoninck have made important contributions to our understanding of eVan Veen’s emblem theory in general. This collection expands upon the existing scholarship by its even more “panoptic approach”, as Simon McKeown notes in the introduction. In addition to essays addressing Van Veen’s cardinal works, there are several contributions on less well-known publications, such as his ‘graphic novella’ based on a medieval Spanish legend (with illustrations by Antonio Tempesta), his collection of emblematic devices in the form of medal reverses, and his treatise on the questions of predestination and free will.
One of the larger themes of this collection is the conceptual sophistication and inventiveness of Van Veen’s emblematic and para-emblematic creations. These qualities are particularly emphasized in Walter S. Melion’s essay on the metaphoric conflation between Vaenius and Venus in Amorum emblemata, whereby the artist creates a sophisticated analogy between his image-making and the workings of Cupid (as in instrument of Venus) as well as of the Goddess of love herself – since all art is born from love. Even more importantly, Melion discusses Van Veen’s understanding of the continuum of love, from the earthly to its most spiritual equivalent, which allows for a deeper understanding of his doctrine of images as its instrument and mediator. As a counterpoint to this argument about Van Veen’s approach to love as a governing and all powerful unity in multiplicity, Peter Boot writes about the differences between the treatment of earthly love in Amorum Emblemata and its religious counterpart in Amoris Divinis Emblemata. Yet, rather than insisting on a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane forms of Eros, what this essay makes clear is the degree to which firmly codified pictorial and textual devices can be put to very different uses in specific contexts – and for specific audiences.
Tina Montone’s essay expands upon these ideas about the contextual determinants of meanings by attending to the variations among the emblem inscriptions (subscriptiones) in the different languages deployed within the original polyglot edition, or in its later translations. As she suggests, in addition to reflecting the humanist premium on copia and varietas, these textual variants on an idea or a topos may also give valuable clues about the collaborative nature of the production of emblems in Van Veen’s studio and circle. Her argument is complemented by Stephen Rawles’s careful analysis of the varieties of images among the different editions of Amorum Emblemata. Like Montone, he stops short of providing an easy explanation regarding the large number of versions, suggesting that additional analysis could yield finer knowledge about the publishing practices of the period – which is, in itself, an important conclusion and impetus for further study. That these variants were sometimes motivated by a specific patron becomes clear in Sabine Mödersheim’s reconstruction of the context of the German edition of Emblemata Amoris dedicated to Philipp Hainhofer. In a similar vein, Wim van Dongen demonstrates the popularity of Van Veen’s emblems by showing their legacy in publications by other authors on totally different topics, such as the curative powers of natural springs (Symbola in thermae et acidulas reflexio, Mainz, 1690).
Among the scholars who focus on Van Veen’s intellectual milieu, Alison Adams looks at his emblems inspired by the Stoic injunction to keep one’s mind free from passions (mens immota manet). One of the important insights from her essay is that nothing about these emblems is reducible to a single perspective: the very emphasis on freedom from passions seems undermined by the larger theme of Amorum Emblemata about the universal power of love as an affectus that leaves no one unmoved. In a broader sense, her essay adds to the overarching thesis of this collection concerning Van Veen’s remarkable ingenuity and wit as an author. These qualities are elaborated upon in Olga Vassilieva-Codognet’s analysis of one of the most obscure of Van Veen’s publications: the Emlemata sive symbola (Brussels, 1624). Closer to a collection of heraldic devices than an emblem book proper, this compendium of images intended for reverses of medals demonstrates the currency of Neo-Stoic ideas within Van Veen’s courtly audience, especially in the context of his service as a warden (waerdeyn) of the Brussels Mint.
The more “obscure” aspects of Van Veen’s oeuvre are treated in three more essays. The volume editor Simon McKeown presents a transcription of an English edition of the Historia septem infantium de Lara – an illustrated re-telling of a Spanish medieval romance about the heroic exploits and tragic end of seven noble and devout brothers. What makes these illustrations (engraved by Tempesta) especially interesting for students of early modern painting is their combination of historic personages and personifications and they ways in which this might help us gain a finer appreciation for his influence on his famous pupil, Rubens, especially in terms of the interplay of representational codes and genres in grand histories such as the 1626 cycle devoted to Marie de Medici.
Even more interesting in terms of its potential to illuminate the complex intellectual climate around Van Veen – and Rubens – is the little studied work treated in two essays of this volume, Physicae et theologicae conclusiones (Antwerp, 1621). In the first one, co-authored by Ralph Dekoninck and Agnès Guiderdoni, we become aware of the risks that must have surrounded this publication, given its focus on the question of predestination and free will, and its evocations of rather unorthodox sources, from Dionysian mysticism and Paracelsus to Petrarch and Neoplatonism. Dekoninck and Guiderdone come to a conclusion that Van Veen follows a middle way between the Catholic and the Protestant perspectives on this question, which would have surely been controversial in itself. However, just as important is their attention to his visualization of these ideas through highly abstract, geometric images that represent human emotions and understanding as highly dynamic processes – an eternal becoming, rather than a being. The second essay by Andrea Catellani delves further into the semiotic innovations in this treatise to suggest that his diagrammatic approach to ideas betrays an epistemic tension between the world as a symbolic versus a mathematical structure. This note on the way in which Van Veen’s approaches to image-making and signification reflect upon the changing epistemological perspectives of the period can serve as a fitting conclusion concerning the volume as a whole, whose commendable inter-disciplinary character will hopefully inspire scholars of art, literature, and ideas towards similarly multi-faceted projects.
University of Maryland, College Park