Emblem from Daniel Cramer’s 1624 “Emblemata Sacra” (all images via Internet Archive Book Images)

An eagle sprouts from a heart and soars above severed hands and feet stamped with stigmata; a hand reaches out from the clouds to stab a heart through with a hammer. The strange and surreal scenes are part of an incredible series of woodcuts in a 17th-century manual of the soul.

Emblemata Sacra (1624) by Daniel Cramer is just one of many emblem books published between the 16th and 18th centuries. At a time when literacy was still low, they mixed detailed religious symbolism with recognizable objects from the everyday to offer a visual component for the textual stories. Cramer, a Lutheran theologian from Germany, was especially drawn to the heart. Moving away from the Catholic Church with its belief in an actual transformation of the host into the body of Christ during communion, this heart was more a symbol. As Emily Jo Sargent wrote in an essay for The Heart (2007, Yale University Press), “During the seventeenth century, books of ‘Emblems’ were published, which featured this symbol over and over again in a series of situations intended as a guide to the various duties and sufferings of the good Christian heart.”

You can think of them as a sort of morbid precursor to the hearts of Valentines and emoticons that we know today. The brutal journey of the heart, representing the trials of individuals in seeking salvation, have the organ sailing rough seas, riding with wings on the back of snail, and sprouting flowers and wheat. Not all of it is immediately understandable now, but the arcane visuals were meant for deep contemplation on perseverance, faith, and how to live in line with religion. Cramer’s book was so popular it had numerous editions in German, French, Latin, and Italian. It even got into the visual architecture of the protestant churches, and you can still find these emblems with heart motifs on everything from pews to pulpits in the Protestant churches in Northern Europe.

The entire publication is viewable online at the Internet Archive (part of the greater Emblem Collection of the University of Illinois), and more of the Cramer emblems are at the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr Commons. Below are some highlights, and perhaps ideas for the tattoos you never knew you needed. 

Objects of Intrigue is a feature highlighting extraordinary objects from the world’s great museums, private collections, historic libraries, and overlooked archives. See more incredible objects here >