Beauty and beast, magic spaces, skulls and roses – The origin of ex libris theme world

Beyond introducing blazons, landscapes, street views, interiors and style world of ancient ages, bookplates reflect their values, ideas and culture as well. Although the classification of the theme world of bookplates is not an easy task – because of their variety -, it is not an impossible mission. We are going to highlight some of them, along the definition of the main bookplate theme groups, and reveal the cultural background and historical origin hiding behind the imagery.

85_2364_3.jpgThe aim of spectacular, dumfounding, occasionally hardly explainable, and in many cases strange images in bookplates is sometimes ambiguous. It might be the sight, sensation seeking, to amaze others (like in the case of tattooing nowadays), and to emphasize the ‘nobody-else-has-the-same’ individualistic character, suggesting exclusivity. As bookplates were not made for the great public, their style world – compared to stamps for instance – is less conservative. The reason for that might be the fact that private customers were not restrained by either any censure or by the fear from the reaction of public opinion. Thus, it is understandable how fantasy, motivated by the buyer’s and the creator’s freedom, could get wings when the graphics of bookplates were dreamt up.

Innocence and angels of death

86_63.jpg A beloved topic of bookplates is depicting a creature related to the mystic and the religious world. One of them is the angel, who can be a cherub showing childlike innocence in the figure of a naked chub-faced child with wings, typically shooting arrows in mythological pictures. This latter was a decorating motif, characteristic in baroque, renaissance and classicism in fine arts.

During centuries, the type of angel imagery in Christian religions was defined by the descriptions in the saint book of Christianity the Bible, in which angels appear in the figures of common people. God used them for communication; their mission was to mediate God’s will – phrased in direct instructions – to people.

87_2635.jpgAlthough angels are often presented with wings in art works, and there are examples in Biblical descriptions that angels could lift up somehow, there is not any clear hint whether they did it with wings or in other ways. Based on the text, it seems that angels could reach our world by stepping across dimensions somehow. Though in the Bible, angels stood on the ‘good side’ beside God, there were some angels – the angels of death -, who got a mission of destruction. You can find an example for that in the Book of Kings, when God’s angel killed 185 thousand people in a mission. The picture of the angel of death can be seen in many bookplates, as a skeleton typically, which is approaching or attacking someone.

The Grim Reaper and the Satan

87_407.jpgPresumably, descriptions about Biblical angels of death inspired the medieval legend that often appears in different sorts of bookplates: the carter of death, usually in a hooded reaper skeleton figure. According to the legend, the carter of death drives his cart with a hood on the head and a scythe in the hand. The cart is pulled by two bony horses and he carries dead people with this cart during a year. On New Year’s Eve, he looks for a new carter instead of himself, the last one, who died in sin. Many bookplates illustrate satanic, devil-like creatures. This illustration is nourished from the Christian religious world that says: Satan is the master of hell, whose mission is to tempt people to sin, thus recruiting followers for himself. During centuries, the image of hell and Satan, its role and importance in religion and in our culture has changed. Elements of faith similar to hell and Satan appeared in ancient religions as well. In the Old Testament, the devil is a mystic but insignificant figure (mentioned rarely), and not an evil genius. This image changed in the New Testament. Lucifer – the light bringer – was God’s favourite angel, but his pride led him to oppose God. The angels of Satan stood up against God’s army combatively. Their fight resulted in reckoning with Satan and his angels. He received the rule over hell, and taking vengeance for his downfall by using people became his mission.

"The great dragon was hurled down - that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, (...) He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him."  - Book of Revelation 12:9 - Bible (NIV)

86_919.jpgA typical medieval religious illustration of Satan depicts him with horns and a tail, or when he tempts Eve as a snake, wound around the tree of knowledge. In the 6th century, Satan’s role and importance in religion and arts increased after that Pope Saint Gregory the Great announced that the seven deadly sins were the result of Satan’s work. Mainly due to this, the amount of illustrations about the beast grew enormously across Europe by the 10th century and ruled the religious arts. He appeared in thousands of frightful and terrific forms, in dark colours typically, as half-human and half-animal. In the Middle Ages, hell became an attraction. Descriptions about unceasing tortures, awful smell, endless fire and bodies struggling in pain played the role of contemporary horror stories and raised believers’ interest. Church fathers used this popularity and the fear of hell to lure believers in the church. Later in the Renaissance, the hell and Satan images living in the public perception reached its present form, due to literary illustrations like the one in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Science and alchemy, genesis in test tubes

The ex libris graphics classified in scientific and pseudo-scientific groups liked the motifs of snakes, human skeletons, skulls and different kinds of alembics. You can also see homunculus illustrations in some bookplates, which means a small human being usually in an alembic. The idea that humans or humanoid creatures might be produced in an alembic chemically came from alchemists and especially from Paracelsus. They thought there was a homunculus in every human reproductive cell, which would become an adult-size human only by growing.

Beauties, phantoms and posing with status symbols

87_952_sz.jpgThe graphics of bookplates that contain scenes illustrate a story, an action. For example, a bookplate of this type shows a skeleton on top of a cliff pushing its victim in the abyss, or another one shows an alchemist who is looking at the brew in his alembic. When presenting beauty, bookplates show gardens, roses, natural landscapes, sometimes surrealistic natural formations or period (medieval for example) images of towns and streets. Introducing wealth and status symbols sometimes comes together with portrays. These include portrays of people reading in a private library, or sitting on a horse; or interiors showing the owners’ study with own library, their storeyed house or their posing in expensive clothes or in a flower garden. A certain type of bookplates projects the knowledge and wisdom that can be explored, or secrets accessible for only an exclusive club, and the idealised image of recluse civilization with books or in a private library.

Károly Erdélyi

Translated by Zita Aknai


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