Singing Pictures: Georgette de Montenay’s Emblems


by Felipe Vogel

Thanks to the work of E. J. Hutchinson, many of us are aware of Theodore Beza’s emblems. The enigmatic woodcuts and poetry of emblem books were also employed by less well-known Protestant writers, but no less vividly and even hauntingly, to picture life in light of God. Among these was Georgette de Montenay, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Navarre. Her emblems went through several editions in the decades after their publication in 1567, culminating in a 1619 polyglot edition which contains no fewer than eight versions of the text by various hands: the original French, two in Latin, and one each in Spanish, Italian, German, English, and Dutch. Evidently this recondite work was in high demand.

I want to highlight one theme among many treated in de Montenay’s emblems: the Christian people’s aloofness to evanescent earthly powers. It makes for a timely reminder in our day, as it does in every age. If we Americans (speaking for ourselves) aren’t snared by the Scylla of conflating faithfulness to God with patriotism to country, we fall into the Charybdis of pandering to our opponents so that we don’t seem like those Christians, close-minded and unpleasant. And besides these, who among us is not just a bit too enamored with our own little empires, our work and our reputation? So let’s hear de Montenay on the transience of worldly rule, in the Latin versions of two of her emblems. All four of these poems are composed of elegiac couplets, which are relatively easy to scan and sing to a tune, as I do in the links below by way of example.

Emblem 12

The twelfth emblem takes its motto (SED FUTURAM INQUIRIMUS) from the Vulgate text of Hebrews 13:14, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”

Version 1:

click for audio

Caelica suspirans iamdudum ad regna viator,

     Ipse suas aliis sponte relinquit opes.

Faenore cum toto teneant nihil invidet, huius

     Instabiles Mundi cum sciat esse domos.

Version 2:

click for audio

Nunc seges est ubi Roma fuit, Carthago, Corinthus.

     Diruta Troia rogo, cum Babylone iaces.

Hinc caelum petimus: sedes ibi fata quietas

     Ostendunt. Ab aquis cetera et igne cadunt.

These translate roughly as follows:

The traveler, long sighing for heavenly realms,
Leaves his riches to others.
He doesn’t envy, though they take all his profit,
knowing the world’s homes are unsteady.

A field is now where Rome was, Carthage, and Corinth.
Troy, consumed in flames, with Babylon you lie.
Heavenward we aim, where destiny shows us quiet
Places. All else is ruined by fire and water.

Emblem 23

The motto of the twenty-third emblem (QUID SUPEREST) refers to Ecclesiastes 1:3: “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?”

Version 1:

click for audio

Assyriae concussa diu fundamina turris

     Indomito caeli turbine et igne cadent.

Hinc fuge, gens dilecta Deo. Fuge, gens pia, mistam

     Cum reprobis ne te tristia fata ferant.

Version 2:

click for audio

Fossores operi accingunt Babylona ruentes:

     Grandine in hanc nimbi, iam ignibus astra micant.

Eripite hinc animas subita formidine versi,

     Christum et sperantes accelerate procul.

Translated:

The foundations of Assyria’s tower, long blasted
By untamed storm and fire, will fall.
Flee, God’s people! Flee, you faithful!
Lest a sad fate take you mixed with them.

The diggers are ready to excavate Babylon.
Hailstorms glisten, the sky’s lit up with fire.
Tear yourselves away! Turn with fear!
And hoping in Christ, run far.

Conclusion

The harmony of image, word, and music that is on display in emblem books shines no less beautifully in other early Protestant Latin poetry. These wonderful treasures have fallen into neglect, but today they are more accessible than ever, thanks to online scans of old editions and the rising interest in Latin for theology and Christian schools. So why not dig them up and dust them off? From elegiac Psalms, to biblical drama, to an epic on Israel and Christ, Reformation-era Latin can renew our minds and move our hearts.


Felipe Vogel and his wife Hannah teach in Liberia, West Africa, with the Rafiki Foundation. Felipe earned his M.A. at the University of Kentucky, where he lived every day in Latin at the Institute for Latin Studies.