Posted in encouragement, theology

Abecedarium, Bestiary, and Emblem books: What do they have to do with the Bible?

By Elizabeth Prata

“I don’t have time to read.” I hear this a lot. I say this a lot. I used to read widely and incessantly before I was saved. Nowadays I am working a day job and ministering/serving at night, with Bible reading too. That leaves me either no time to read other books or tired eyes if I do have time. The pile of books grows high and the finished pile is small.

I’m preparing an essay “On Reading” for later this week, but in researching for it, and in researching for another essay I’m doing on a scene from Pilgrim’s Progress, I am discovering some things that inform my background on reading and the importance of immersing one’s self in a variety of types of literature.

Let this essay be considered an introduction to “On Reading” that I’ll write later this week.

We know that John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. We also know that it is the second-best selling book in the English language. The book is an allegory. What is an allegory?

An allegory is: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one. “Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of the spiritual journey”

Bunyan’s book contains literary devices and genres within it of which we may not be familiar. These are are good to know as we read his amazing allegory. What are some other types of literature? Abecedarium, Bestiary, Emblem books were popular at Bunyan’s time and before.

Abecedarium: (plural abecedaria)

A book used to teach the alphabet; alphabet book; primer. An inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order.

In past eras childrens’ abecedaria lessons included Bible lessons and verses. I have an abecedarium (of course I do!) and here is its first page. It is an illuminated alphabet from the court of Emperor Rudolf II.

Rudolf II (1552 – 1612) was Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia and Archduke of Austria. He was a member of the House of Hapsburg. The illuminated ‘A’ and picture represents a verse from Revelation 1:8,

I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

The explanation of the picture from the abecedarium is that: “the first written symbol pays homage to God, the ruler of heaven and earth, the “beginning and the end”. The biblical verse, accompanied by the tetragram of Gods’ name is quoted within a stylized Omega in the middle of the page and in a cartouche at the bottom margin. With this verse, the first letter of the Greek alphabet simultaneously refers to the last one. The blue medallion containing the tetragram of his name occupies the the center of the folio. It connects the constructional drawing of the letter A with its executed version and is surrounded by the Omega, which generates flashes of lightning and thunderheads as symbols of God’s might.”

“In the upper margin, a cherub is surrounded by a laurel wreath, a sign of God’s fame, and flanked by incense burners. This angel praises the Lord along with the cherubim at the right margins. At both left and right, eternal lights burn in praise of God, as so candles entwined by olive branches, which symbolize his peace, Four demonic winged insects (the two antennae on the abdomens of the upper ones indicate that they are Ephemerae, whose life span is a single day) are attracted by the flames.”

A children’s book can be very sophisticated. Another antique book style was a Bestiary.

Bestiary is “a descriptive or anecdotal treatise on various real or mythical kinds of animals, especially a medieval work with a moralizing tone. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson. This reflected the belief that the world itself was the Word of God, and that every living thing had its own special meaning. For example, the pelican, which was believed to tear open its breast to bring its young to life with its own blood, was a living representation of Jesus. The bestiary, then, is also a reference to the symbolic language of animals in Western Christian art and literature.

Illustration from from the Oxford Bestiary; Perindens, a magic tree and keeper of the birds.

Another kind of book that was popular when Bunyan was writing Pilgrim’s Progress was the Emblem Book:

An emblem book is a book collecting emblems (allegorical illustrations) with accompanying explanatory text, typically morals or poems. This category of books was popular in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

In part 1 and in part 2 when Christian and Christiana are in the House of the Interpreter, there seems to be a similarity to the scenes Bunyan records there with an Emblem Book. This Wiki entry explains.

“Many of the pictures in the House of the Interpreter seem to be derived from emblem books or to be created in the manner and spirit of the emblem. … Usually, each emblem occupied a page and consisted of an allegorical picture at the top with underneath it a device or motto, a short Latin verse, and a poem explaining the allegory. Bunyan himself wrote an emblem book, A Book for Boys and Girls (1688) …”, cf. Sharrock, p. 375.

Right, Wisdom – from George Wither’s Book of Emblems (London 1635)

So…that is all pretty interesting. We know that the Bible itself contains many different kinds of literary styles. From GotQuestions’ list

historical literature (1 and 2 Kings),
dramatic literature (Job),
legal documents (much of Exodus and Deuteronomy),
song lyrics (The Song of Solomon and Psalms),
poetry (most of Isaiah),
wisdom literature (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes),
apocalyptic literature (Revelation and parts of Daniel),
short story (Ruth),
sermons (as recorded in Acts),
speeches and proclamations (like those of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel),
prayers (many Psalms),
parables (such as those Jesus told),
fables (such as Jotham told), and
epistles (Ephesians and Romans).

I recently read an epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I read Pilgrims Progress part 1 this summer and I’m reading part 2 now, which is an allegory. I’m reading poetry, a book of short stories, and a non-fiction historical. This past summer I read Moby-Dick, which is a little of every genre, I think!

Reading widely in various genres helps the Christian when s/he reads the Bible. Reading the Bible with its many genres helps the Christian when s/he reads widely. It works both ways. Christians should be readers. Challies explains why. An abecedarium might not be your cup of tea, neither a bestiary or an emblem book, but there are many different kinds of books besides the standard Christian novel or the non-fiction theology book. Try one! I had a hard time at first with Pilgrim’s Progress because I don’t connect well to abstractions like symbolism or allegory, but I’m glad I stuck with it. The skill helps me when I read the Bible. The word pictures in the allegory also stay with me.

Let me know what different genre you tried and how you liked or didn’t like it!



Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.