Under the guise of apparently seventeenth-century Christian moral teachings, the German theologian Daniel Cramer presents the yearnings of a heart more suited to secret alchemical doctrines than to the theology of piety.
In Germany at the turn of the seventeenth century, in times of tremendous religious struggles, the outstanding Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer (1568-1637) wrote a book with very unorthodox and controversial images even for the world of the Reformation, but which passed as a theatrical and erudite form of “meditation of the heart” by a scholar who had tried, as a young man, to make his way into the field of drama. But he wasn’t Shakespeare.
Daniel Cramer was the son of a theologian whose professional steps he followed until becoming a renowned university professor and safely embracing Martin Luther’s religious reform. However, despite his background, Cramer’s son was a controversial theologian and was opposed not only by Jesuits – with whom he was in constant strife – but also by Protestants. Equally controversial is the publishing history of his Emblemata Sacra: hoc est, decades quinque emblematum ex sacra scriptura, de dulcissimo nomine & cruce Jesu Christi, figuris aeneis incisorum. Pars prior to Prime reveren. Dn. Danielem Cramerum SS. Theologiae doctorem collectio. Postea true Dn. Cunrado Bachmanno, hist. … Illustrata. Francofurti, Sumptibus Lucae Jennis I., 1674.
There had been several editions from 1617 to 1624, with new emblems, title pages, and polyglot translation. The 1624 edition presents one hundred emblems, eighty of which showed a heart in the image. The epigrams are by Cunrad Bachmann, and Lucas Jennis write the preface.
The massive presence of the heart symbol leads us to unquestionably identify the subject as the “doctrine of the heart”, a religious meditation phenomenon typical of European seventeenth-century Christian texts, which represented a continuum of the so-called theology of piety and was not connected to the theological controversies of that period. However, the protestant books presented a more popular and fresh use of concepts and imagery than culturally more conservative Catholics. The forerunner of the genre was Benedictus van Haeften’s Schola Cordis, or the school for the earth, in which the human earth was taught to be united with God, and it was both the subject and recipient of the teaching. Van Haeften’s work relied heavily on the ancient established authors’ writings, to the point of being a mere series of quotations. The author preferred the term “school” rather than the concept of meditation. As time went by, the writers on the same subject became more mystic and passion oriented, especially the protestants, who were more interested in religious discourse rather than dogma. For instance, Christopher Harvey’s School of the Heart was all in verse.
Daniel Cramer’s Emblemata Sacra (Sacred Emblems) went even further and appeared on the scene of the doctrine of the heart in an unexpected way: it was an all-emblem text. So much, so that modern historians cataloged it within the emblematic genre, such as Alciati Emblemata. The book consists of two groups of fifty images, each emblem with an adequately written part: a motto, pittura, subscription, quotation from the old and new testament, and four poems in Latin, German, French, and Italian offering variations on the motto and biblical quotation. But, admittedly, the literary part is scarcely determinant. We know that the put-down parts of that age were extremely prudent, as censorship was mainly applied to the writings. The images were bound to interpretation, so they were rather unencumbered.
The mismatch of words and images soon becomes evident in Cramer’s book. The heart’s iconography is somewhat absent from the traditional Christian sources; no verse in either the Old or New Testament explicitly cites the word “heart”. In Emblemata Sacra, most of the variations on the mottos and biblical quotations are famous verses on common moral teachings, and the explicit biblical parts seem more adaptations of those famous verses, which, it is fair to say, more than often seem incongruously attached to the referred emblem. Hence the necessity of relying only on the images for the hidden meaning. Sometimes Cramer adopts some verses to add hints to the image, for instance, when colors are involved.
Lucas Jennis, Emblemata Sacra printer, and publisher, in the preface to the benevolent reader, explains the reasons for the preponderance given to images providing the example set by the ancient art of Egyptian hieroglyphics: ” … they revealed to each other their profound wisdom and the thoughts of their hearts through characteristic images of animal or other familiar and natural objects…”. What Lucas Jennis doesn’t say, and what perhaps was still unknown before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, is that the hieroglyphics were a complete writing system, not just a fascinating series of emblems. But surely Jennis wasn’t new to censorship concerns as he was, beyond Cramer, also the publisher of many Alchemy treatises.
I don’t mean here to excessively elaborate on how different Emblemata Sacra is from the other religious treatises on meditations on the heart of his time, but it substantially presents many anomalies. To an extent, as said above, historians of religions today judge Cramer’s book closer to Alciati Emblemata than Van Haeften’s Scola Cordis. If compared to the latter, they say that more than a teaching to the heart, Cramer’s book is about the speaking heart.
Emblemata Sacra’s main iconographic theme, the heart, is not referred to as the cardiac muscle. The seventeenth-century theology of piety was assigned to the primary human muscle, the popular organ of passion for antonomasia, the source of the necessary driving for imitating Christ. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, the heart was depicted with a vase, which is somewhat enigmatic, as a vase is intended to be filled with something. In the later Hieroghypics by Horapollo Nilous, the human heart symbol was associated with fire and smoke (into a vase). And this would not discord with the heart being considered from antiquity as the most internal point and, consequently, the most hidden.
The adventures and vicissitudes of a heart in Emblemata Sacra are divided into two quite different series. Suppose the first series might represent the so-called “Operatio”, or operation. In that case, that’s to say, the achievement of the Stone, or something similar; the second part might represent the “Amplificatio” or what to do after. In poor words, we can say that the first series deals with alchemical works while the second with what could happen next, whether you want to define philosophy or theurgy. In this article, we will analyze the alchemical part, i.e., the fifty emblems of the first series. But I’m committed to studying to face the other in the future.
Let’s glance at some baroque-age Christian books on the school of the heart. We can observe that life’s vicissitudes, trials, and tests necessary for a human heart to reach perfection look very similar to the vicissitudes, trials, and tests necessary for a raw mineral to reach the perfection of the final Philosophers Stone. In Alchemy, the heart symbol stands for the hidden magnet in every organized body, the densest receptacle of Secret Fire, the place from which it is received and broadcasted to the universe, the bearer of life and death, and is not the monopoly of human beings but of all organized bodies, from the simplest salts to the stars. It does not depend on the degree of belief or awareness; it is an ineffable physical entity. It is our Apollo/Artemis.
Religious faith, and even modern psychology, believe in the transmutation of the human psyche, that is, respectively to achieving union with the divine and greater awareness. At first sight, the first series of Emblemata Sacra could appear to run along similar lines. Still, some emblems with too many extravagant and unfit details, which cannot in any way be related to the Christian theology of piety: I mean emblems 17, 20, 35, and 42, and instead, to an alchemist’s eye, cannot but being explicitly aimed at alchemical works, and not as stations for the human perfection. The other emblems of the two series not only put on display several hearts but also crosses, roses, lilies, grapes, sunflowers, cups, suns, water sources and streams, seas, caves, furnaces, obelisks, skulls, eyes, hands from above emerging from clouds, doves, owls, bees, honeycombs, spiders with their webs, dolphins, butterflies, apes, stags, sheep, salamanders, lions, flies, cocks, frogs, toads, dogs, bulls, mirrors, lenses, feathers, sacrifices, mothers with children, anchors, boats, shells, candles, torches, hourglasses, scales, treasures, trees, roots, axes, swords, arrows, shields, bird traps, boots, crowns, Globus crucigers, incense burners, fumes – almost all symbols playing a major role in alchemical imagery, and having very little room in biblical imagery. But the most characteristic of all alchemical symbols was carefully avoided: the moon. The moon is absent from all of Cramer’s symbolic imagery. And this is no coincidence, as in the renaissance-baroque Christian iconography, unlike in the Middle Ages, the moon was already banned. Serpents and dragons were still allowed to fight as symbols of the dark forces, but not the Moon. Since Pope John XXII’s Spondent quas non exhibent bull was issued in the first half of the fourteenth century against any form of Alchemy, the moon became the most prohibited among Christian symbols when in the Christian imagery, they came back to assume the symbolic characters taken initially from the ancient solar religions. In the gallery below, I published the fifty emblems of the first series along with the most salient and short written explication.
Finally, just a glance at Emblemata Sacra frontispiece: no iconographic themes taken from religious texts, but the four theological virtues – Faith, Temperance, Charity, and Prudence- traditionally interpreted in an alchemical sense by many alchemists. One for all, Fulcanelli.
Emblemata Sacra First Series
In brackets is the translation from the original Latin mottos and, in some cases, a very brief summary of the most indicative quotations. My very brief comment is outside the brackets.
1 Mollesco (I soften) – I change the state of matter and disaggregate into the four elements, and in doing this, I let out my Spirit.
It continues on the following pages