Renascent Semiotics: 
The Pragmatics of the Memento Mori in The Judd Memorial

The poetry of the Renaissance lay in both its verbal and its visual artists. The former provided the 16th and 17th centuries with words to define the Britons' worldview while the latter provided these centuries with the images that would give this view a face. Michael Leslie writes, "there is a widely-shared sense among modern critics that the experience of visual art was crucial to the Elizabethan literary imagination" (16). Because of this, neither the verbal representations nor the visual depictions could be complete without the other. Ekphrasis, the verbalization of the visual, and sisarhake, the visualization of the verbal, denoted efforts at combining both in each art form. Aenarngia, or verbal portraiture, therefore, arose in conjunction with aenerngia, or visual portraiture, as modes of artistic discourse amongst the shapers of English cultural identity. The culture lay in the midst of learning to recognize that it did not have to end where the world around it began, and it explained that worldview through the iconography of its art. Roy Strong, in his study of the English icon, writes that

riddling emblematics…became all the rage in late Elizabethan England and to read these portrait icons correctly requires a mind well versed in late renaissance allegory. The portrait, being a record of an individual being, is inexorably bound up with that other emanation of renaissance individuality, the impresa or emblematic device. (Strong 30)

These imprese were specifically "personal devices embodying the hopes and aspirations in general philosophical terms of a particular knight or lady" (Strong 30), but hidden within these verbal and visual texts were representations of implicit paradigms within British consciousness, reminders to the English aristocracy itself that there was no world beyond its cultural borders that could prevent England's ascendancy. Of course, there was one final natural frontier over which no person, regardless of rank, could surmount, and that was death. While a phenomenon that happened to all people alike, only the aristocracy could afford to accost the imposition of death beforehand through its patronage of the arts, the reason being in part vanity, for "through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time" (Alberti Book II 61). The English memento mori, consequently, is semiotic in its recording (through the emblems and imprese of the period) the concerns that shaped the ideas of mortality within the inner consciousness of England’s nobility.

Renaissance artists often regarded their work as signs, signifying certain truths about the age, individuals and humankind. Leslie writes that this treatment

provides the essential link between the artistic forms we recognize, such as the portrait, and those other products of the painter listed by Hilliard, ‘story work, emblem, impresa, or other device’; to which we may add heraldic painting and decoration. Within a portrait such elements as stance, costume, position, even shadow, function in the manner of the ‘figures’, human or otherwise, in accepted symbolic forms like the emblem. And in seeing these symbolic forms as occupying a central position between literature and the visual arts, just as the emblem and the impresa employ both words and images, we may perhaps be on surer ground for the discovery of revealing correspondences between the arts. (22)

To understand the artistic expression of the Renaissance, therefore, merely requires a hermeneutic evaluation of the signs of discourse within the art and an understanding that these signs of discourse converse with other signs throughout the work. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, a sign is comprised of both signifier and signified. The signifier is that part of the sign that represents the concept being signified, and the signified is the thing that is represented. In studies of portraiture, a union can be found in the way the signifier and the signified are expressed by the artist. "In normal practice," for example,

a portrait presupposes a desire and decision to be portrayed. If we read the sitter’s image in the light of that assumption, we make the further assumption that the portrait signifies the act of portrayal that produced it. This in turn generates a third assumption, which is that the portrait not only signifies but also represents its cause. It is an [represents an] image of the act of portrayal that produced it. (Berger 98)

A similar symbiosis occurs in the heuristics of the work of art itself, where emblems signify and imprese are signified. Andrew Stott’s explanation of the difference between imprese and emblems is enlightening on this point. He states that

Imprese differ from emblems in that they are intended to be harder to decipher; whereas an emblem may speak didactically and explain universal truths, imprese display a cryptic individuality whose complicated nature invites only a particular type of person into its reading. Whereas emblems seek to have a general significance and application, imprese conceal their meanings from all but the most appropriate of readers, and a certain kind of interpellation is therefore implied. (17)

The emblem is at once an overt signifier of an intended meaning and a means by which to mask true meaning from the uninitiated. It signifies the obvious in such a way as to dispel any thoughts of there being another layer of meaning beneath. The impresa, on the other hand, is the thing that is really being signified. It is the soul of the work and the reason for its existence. Michael Leslie defines the emblem as "primarily general; [aiming] to speak of universal truths and absolute morality" and imprese as "personal, learned, philosophical, and difficult" (24). While the emblem has the capacity for sophistication and complexity, it pursues simplicity of expression and aims at revelation; the impresa, on the other hand, seeks entirely to conceal a hidden or personal truth and is included only for the initiated. While the emblem and the impresa function separately in pursuit of a dual purpose, combined, they constitute a single sign representative of the artist’s complete intent.

One way to examine how the emblem and the impresa accomplish their dual role is to view them as conjoined through a process of suture, which Andrew Stott defines as "the relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse...[which] figures there as the element which is lacking, in the form of a stand-in, [where] suture denotes the joining of two areas, sometimes in order to cover or conceal a third unsightly, troublesome or painful area" (15). The ‘troublesome or painful area’ about which Stott is speaking lies in the depths of that very impresa that is impresaic precisely because its revelation would include the general audience in more than the artist or subject intended. The suture is able to conceal the meaning of the impresa through the presentation of its emblem as a sort of smoke-screen; it is able to mask that which should not be transparent through its display of something so culturally obvious that the reader/responder sees merely a reflection of his or her own preconceptions and not the underlying conceptions of the artist/subject. This is done to maintain the opacity of the impresa, without which, it would cease to be impresaic and become emblematic.

Robert Stam defines this concept of suture as having been first formulated by Jacques-Alain Miller (a student of Lacan’s) in 1966 "to designate the relation of the subject to the chain of its own discourse, a concept meant to clarify the production of the subject in language" (169). While the terminology might be new, it is evident that the concept is applicable to the works of artists such as Holbein, Hilliard and Van Dyck who employed in their art political messages that would have been easily decipherable by the general audience and personal messages that would have been understood only by the intended audience. Stam further defines the concept in stating that

Suture becomes...the process whereby the subject is ‘stitched’ into the chain of discourse which both defines and is defined by the work of the unconscious. But it is also used in the sense of suturing over, binding and making coherent that process which produces the subject: ‘Suture names not just a structure of lack but also an availability of the subject, a certain closure...’ (Stephen Heath 1981 79). In this sense suture is understood as a process of masking, of taking over, of taking the place of. (169)

This kind of adherence to metonymic devices created the English Renaissance by making the portrait artist into more than just a generator of likenesses but a creator of substance within the likeness.

The ability of the artist to negotiate his text in this way is the essence of the suture—the stitching together of disparate themes into a cohesive whole. This technique is especially poignant in memento mori portraiture, which

is after all mid-way between the portrait proper and the subject picture and in such an item as The Judd Memorial at Dulwich College in which husband and wife contemplate a rotting shrouded corpse amidst other emblems betokening the transitoriness of human life, the portrait element is made wholly subject to the allegory" (Strong 39).

In this Elizabethan portrait, executed by an unknown artist, the image of death awaiting burial lies above a text that reads "LYVE: TO: DYE: AND: DYE. TO. LYVE, ETARNALLY." The text is overlaid on the jamb of a viewing table in Latin alphabet gravestone type, and its English composition makes it intelligible to the lay viewing audience in a way that its inscription in Latin would not have. The meaning is simply that humankind is born to die, but through death, we find eternal life. The emblem inherent in this statement is a Christian motif, within which lies the impresa of its being particularly Protestant in its use of the vernacular. This suggests that the deceased was himself a Protestant and not a Catholic and that dying a Protestant is no impediment to the attainment of perpetual Elysian bliss. The soul, it can be assumed, is safely in heaven, away, even, from the rigors of the Catholic Purgatory that would otherwise have hampered its fresh start at eternal living. In this way, the inscription betrays a final commentary on the dichotomy between the body and the soul—that the body is a vessel born to decay through which the soul achieves its final state of perfection. Its ability to serve as a conduit in this fashion makes it Holy, as indeed the theosophical assertions of an eventual reunion of the body with the soul indicate. Of course, it is important to qualify that it is possible to see significance where none lies. Strong explains that

It would be wrong…to overstress allegory, complexity, psychology for most of the conventional portraiture. Most of it was crude face recording and by far the most obsessive theme was that of the memento mori. Reflective of a society which was in a curious way revelling [sic] in late medieval revivalism (in its architecture and dress) the memento mori enabled them to counter the portrait image with its overtones of human glory with a stern, moralistic, message. Skulls, rotting cadavers and timepieces reminded both sitter and onlooker that all early things are transitory. (38)

The moralistic message in this image is that regardless of the aspirations of humankind and the glories we achieve on this earth, a similar fate awaits all of us—that should we accumulate a world of possessions, we are all buried bereft of them. The naked corpse attests to that; moreover, it signifies that we do not even possess our own bodies upon death, but that a greater life awaits us beyond it.

George Wither, in his 1635 edition of A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, extends the point that the decaying corpse is a reminder to the viewing audience to be pious. He argues that

Whom this doth represent as now thou art;
And, such a Fleshlesse Raw-bone shalt thou bee,
Though, yet, thou seeme to act a comelier part.
Observe it well; and marke what Vglinesse
Stares through the sightlesse Eyeholes, from within:
Note those leane Craggs, and with what Gastlinesse,
That horrid Countenance doth seeme to grin.

The memento mori scares us because it speaks to our fear of what lies beyond this life, to our fear of being consumed by forces beyond our control. Nature has for so long been imbued with the powers and the names of gods and goddesses that have gradually been ascribed to myth and fiction as mankind has learned to understand the reason behind its force and even achieve power over certain aspects of it. Death, however, remains elusive. It is, in fact, not in the power of man to escape from the ultimate destiny that awaits all of humankind, but the living of a virtuous life is within our power, and the prescription to do that is to

Plucke down that Pride which puffs thy heart so high;
Of thy Proportion boast not, and (for shame)
Repent thee of thy sinfull Vanity.
And, having learn’d, that, all men must become
Such bare Anatomies; and, how this Fate
Nor mortall Powre, nor Wit, can keepe thee from;
Live so, that Death may better thy estate.
Consider who created thee; and why:
Renew thy Spirit, ere thy Flesh decayes:
More Pious grow; Affect more Honestie;
And seeke hereafter thy Creatours praise.
So though of Breath and Beauty Time deprive thee,
New Life, with endlesse Glorie, God will give thee. (8)

To be virtuous, therefore, means to sacrifice the excessive displays of identity that make us so proud and vain that we place our own achievements and aspirations above our obligations to God. It means not just being innocuous in our relationships with those within our power but being beneficent to those within our reach. These are things that the soul can will and the body perform were the body to subordinate its desires to those of the soul. More often is the case that the body follows passions of its own while the soul struggles against them. The body, a creation of the world, thus has precedence over the soul, a creation of heaven, for while the body is within the world it lies in its proper sphere, its partner being an alien malleable to its will.

If the purpose of the body, therefore, is to live upon earth and accumulate the rewards of this world, and the purpose of the soul is to aspire to heaven and reap the rewards of the world to come, then a conflict exists between the two goals. Death becomes a liberation of the soul through the cessation of the body’s aspirations. Leslie explains that

[William] Drummond and many other theorists divide the impresa into the body or image, and the soul or motto; and in so doing they imply the tensions and struggles ascribed by poets in the period to the human being, between the Body and its ‘Tyrannic Soul’, which on its part feels ‘fetter’d in feet…and manacl’d in hands’. (25)

His allusion is derived from Andrew Marvell’s "A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body," published posthumously in 1681, four-fifths of a century following the end of Elizabeth’s reign, which is illustrative of this conflict between the emblem of the body and the impresa of the soul trapped within it. The soul, in the first stanza, begins by crying forth from the body:

O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav'd so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter'd stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as 'twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur'd, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart. (1-10)

This is not indicative of a symbiotic relationship between the body and the soul where both operate under principles of mutualism sufficient to assure the ascendancy of both. The soul despairs over its own fragmented symmetry, decrying that the clay of the body is entirely incarcerating in the limits it imposes upon the soul. The body, instead of providing the soul with the senses of sight and hearing, actually deprives them of the soul, pinning the soul into the material interests that are within reach of the body’s limited senses. The vain head insinuates itself against the dependent relationship the soul enjoys with God through its display of pride and independent identity while the double heart seeks passions of the flesh over those of the spirit.

The body has its own litany of complaints, however, and does not subordinate itself to the censure of the soul, which is what religious indoctrination had attempted in vain to achieve. The body ponders its fate in the same language employed by the soul, invoking in the second stanza agents of deliverance:

O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch'd upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest. (11-20)

The mortality of the body, juxtaposed against the immortality of the soul, suggests that addressing the body’s angst would not be an act of liberation but one of welcome destruction. The body would fain rest inert if it were not for the harrowing demands placed upon it by the soul. The declaration of the memento mori above, that to die is to live eternally, is really, in that light, an injunction of the soul against the body. The only way humankind can seek liberation is through death—as ironic as it may seem that to live, one only has to die. This attitude would seem more natural if Marvell had been writing during the medieval period, but it seems awkwardly out of place during the height of humanism in the 17th-century Protestant English Renaissance. The body should have been depicted by that time as aspiring to its own ascendancy rather than to its own death, for as Pope will write less than a third of a century later in the second epistle of An Essay on Man, "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/ The proper study of mankind is man" (1-2). Marvell’s suggestion, therefore, that there is a continual struggle between the body and the soul is, more than likely, merely an attempt to reconcile our growing humanism with a millennium of medieval theology. As the unknown depictor of the above corpse illustrates, furthermore, it is possible to preserve the body’s image as a perpetual text long after the soul’s flight from it and still include a memento vivi of the soul in the underlying caption.

Underlying the corpse, however, is the grim icon of death, the skeletal framework of man that Marvell’s soul so lambasts. The skull is a reminder of death, a true memento mori, the significance of which is universally understood. According to George Wither, the skeleton is a reminder of mortality that should strike piety into the hearts of man. He writes in a caption above a death’s head with a burning candle atop it that "Death is no Losse, but rather, Gaine;/ For wee by Dying, Life attaine" (21), and provides an extended explanation about the nature of death as follows:

Death, who from our Drosse will us refine,
Vnto that other Life, becomes the Doore,
Where, we in Immortalities shall shine.
When once our Glasse is runne, we presently
Give up our Soules to Death; So death must give
Our Bodies backe againe, that we, thereby,
The Light of Life eternall, may receive.
The Venom’d Sting of Death is tooke away;
And, now, the Grave, that was a Place of Feare,
Is made a Bed of Rest, wherein we may
Lye down in Hope, and bide in Safety, there.
When we are Borne, to Death-ward straight we runne;
And by our Death, our Life is new begunne. (21)

This image, then, from The Judd Memorial, rests above the decaying corpse as an emblem of what awaits it after the departure of the soul. The process of decay will rot the body’s flesh until the bones that supported it are exposed to the scrutiny of the living. The body, quite literally, melts away, to the point that the bones lose even the connective ligaments that would have held the jaw of this skull in place. Deprived of even the means to articulate speech, the skull is dumb, but in art it speaks with greater fluency than living flesh, for it represents the natural end of us all. As if the image were not enough, the caption underneath reads, "THE WORDE OF GOD HATHE KNIT VS TWAYNE AND DEATH SHALL VS DIVIDE AGAYNE." A few meanings can be applied to this. The "us" can refer to the body and soul, which are joined together by the will of God during the course of our lives and ripped apart by death at the end. In this meaning, there is no promised reconciliation to succor the corpse. The spirit lives on eternally, perhaps, as the caption beneath the corpse suggests, but there is no indication that it will return for its fallen partner in life. The body obtains the perpetual rest sought for in Marvell’s poem, and the soul is granted its perpetual peace. A second meaning could be signified by the hands placed upon the crown of the skull, joined in marriage under the auspices of God’s representatives on earth, "till death do they part." That they are resting on death’s head could be an implicit recognition of their eventual separation, of their coming death, but an explicit statement that both recognize the commitment into which they have entered as a lifelong journey during which each will remain as faithful as death to one another. Perhaps, even, there is an impresa conjoining the hands of the man and woman with the concepts of body and soul, respectively, illustrating that the more perfect union of connubial felicity is derivative of our own dichotic selves.

Other meanings are harder to discern and lend themselves entirely to speculation of the artist’s intent. The fact that the skull seems to have some of its teeth but is missing its incisors could be read as the loss of the body’s ability to tear and rip at its soul’s chances for salvation. Chances are, however, reflecting on Strong’s statement about the tendency to overstress significance, that there was no artistic intent toward that end regardless of the value later ages and cultures might place on dentition. More plausible, perhaps, is a focus on the shadows of this segment. The left side of the skull is darkened while the right is not. Perhaps this is an allusion to the dual nature of man in his ability to do evil. This division of man’s soul into dual natures is characteristic of Marvell’s argument that the passions of the flesh inflict violence on the passions of the soul. Man’s sinister, or left, side is in constant battle with his good, or right, side, and the placement of the hands might be impresaic of another matter entirely. The hand on the left side of the skull is the woman’s hand, and its placement could be indicative of the beliefs that it was a woman who caused the fall of Man from the Garden of Eden, that women have baser natures than men, and/or that women as the weaker sex are more vulnerable to falling into sin than are men. In any of these interpretations, it can be argued that the woman needs the guiding spirit of the man to instruct her against error. So, not only do the body and the soul have two natures based on their division, but so does humankind with its stronger and weaker vessels that must come together in holy union in order to complement one another. The union of the bodies and souls of man and woman are, therefore, comparable to the union of the body and soul within either man or woman—and both end in death when the union is no longer necessary to reach fulfillment of God’s divine plan, the anagoge within which is hidden the ultimate impresa.

The memento mori of The Judd Memorial, constructed during England’s High Renaissance at a time when questions pertaining to the dual role of man as creation and as creator were finding articulate form in England’s expressive art, consequently poses a new question pertaining to whether there can ever be a reconciliation between the disparate forces represented in the emblem of the body and in the impresa of the soul. If God creates a soul for a body created by man, then the fallen body and the generated soul are going to naturally fall into perpetual conflict, as demonstrated by Marvell. The reconciliation of this conflict can come only through the reuniting of the soul with a spiritual body, created by God and not by man. Henry Vaughn’s "The Evening-Watch" anticipates further the reunion of the spiritual body with the physical body on the day of judgment, which is immediate in the sense that traditional concepts of time and space do not exist within the expanse of the heavens, so that a glorified body in which the distinctions between the impresa and the emblem can be effaced is possible in the ideal state of celestial perfection. Vaughn’s poem, published in 1650, 31 years before Marvell’s, therefore, presents a different argument, in which the body and the soul hope restlessly for their reunion as that is the only means by which a true state of perfection might be fulfilled. The scriptures, in fact, promise that on the day of Judgment, the souls of the dead will return to the earth and reunite themselves with their husks in anticipation of the eternal life to come. Vaughn’s body, instead of dreading the union it has endured so long with the soul, embraces the prospect of a reunion in stating: "Farewell! I goe to sleep; but when/ The day-star springs, I’le wake agen" (1-2). The soul, instead of tormenting the flesh with invectives against it, provides succor to the body with asserting that it will not be abandoned to the natural forces of decay.

Goe, sleep in peace; and when thou lyest
Unnumber’d in thy dust, when all this frame
Is but one dramme, and what thou now descriest
In sev’rall parts shall want a name,
Then may his peace be with thee, and each dust
Writ in his book, who ne’r betray’d man’s trust! (3-8)

There is an embrace in this farewell, an au-revoir, rather than a good-bye, in which the body is able to ask, "Amen! But hark, e’r we two stray,/ How many hours do’st think ‘till day?" (9-10) in the impatient hope that the reunion will not be too long in coming. The soul rejoins

Ah! go; th’art weak, and sleepie. Heav’n
Is a plain watch, and without figures winds
All ages up; who drew this Circle even
He fils it; Dayes, and hours are Blinds.
Yet, this take with thee; The last gasp of time
Is thy first breath, and mans eternall Prime. (11-6)

The meaning lies in the fact that heaven is governed by different rules than is earth, freed as it is from the consequences of historical time. An instant of eternity, therefore, encompasses all of it, and the body and the soul are reunited the very moment they part. In this process of mutual yearning, the dichotomy of body and soul, the binary relationship later presented by Marvell, is destroyed in favor of symbiotic mutual cohesion. Our corpse, who claims to be eternal, is, in both the sense of the image created by man and the image created by God.

By illustrating the relationship between the written and the depicted word, through the artistry of poets and portraitists, a new parallel can be drawn based on the portrait as body and the poem as soul. Just as it is impossible to develop a holistic understanding of the memento mori of The Judd Memorial without both its textual and imagistic accoutrements, it is likewise impossible to discover Renaissance thought without a concurrent study of the poetry and the imagery. Discussing these works chronologically would point to an apparent divergence in English thought concerning the cohesive nature of the body and the soul. Indeed, the unknown artist of The Judd Memorial ultimately promises the eternal life of the soul, Wither promises the damnation of the body, Vaughn promises instantaneous reunion of the soul with the body, Marvell promises perpetual discord between the soul and the body, and Pope promises the ascendancy of Man’s created body over God’s created soul. The body and soul, then, are progressive texts, read differently depending upon the changing needs of any given society. Of course, the suggestion that any body can be read textually can be problematic as we tend to think of ourselves in an isolated context outside of our progressive development. In short, when we look at ourselves, we see ourselves as we are at a particular point in time and space, and when we project ourselves into the future, we tend to project the static vision we have into a future that is dynamic without consideration for the fact that we, too, are dynamic beings. Our dynamic nature gives our bodies and our souls a dynamic text that is read by others as static in order to establish us within a certain slot or class of that other’s preconceptualized experience. The next time the visual text is encountered by that other, the other regards it from the standpoint of the initial judgment, or from the standpoint of displaced historical time, and though that other has definitely developed in the time since the initial point of contact, he or she neither considers his or her own development nor the development the dynamic text has undergone in the same time. A portrait of a man, therefore, is static while the living man and the living history around him is dynamic. The portrait, then, is frozen, which effectively destroys its ability to mature beyond the limitations imposed upon it at the time of the sitting.

Marcia Pointon writes that "paintings of people, and, in particular, portraits of individuals known to have lived in the past, apear [sic] to invite us to understand them as visual biographies" (Pointon 141). So, "the greatest challenge to painters…was seen as the portrayal of the sitter’s ‘character’ –his mind or soul – not merely his outward likeness and social status or rank" (Pace 11). Through studying the manner in which the sitter is portrayed, we garner a better understanding of the actual character of the person him/herself. The melancholy depicted within the countenances of The Judd Memorial, then, is indicative of the state not only of the body, but also of the soul. We see a man and a woman gazing away from the spectator contemplating what appear to be melancholic thoughts on the nature of their existence. Their melancholia is the soul’s reflection and response to the memento mori. The pair cannot gaze at the spectator because their thoughts are not on living, dynamic humankind but on their own mortality and the eventual dual stasis that death will engender, both in regards to their own progressive development and in regards to the artistic representation of their images, which is already arrested from further development by the oil of the painting. Their contemplation is frozen forever, a death unto itself. Strong gives a basis for depictions of melancholia, which can be applied to this conjunction of melancholia with the memento mori. He writes that "to act melancholy was a vogue which was widespread in late Elizabethan and Jacobean society, for…it reflected high intellectual abilities in the field of scholarship, philosophy and poetry" (35). So, not only are the individuals depicted here reflecting on their own mortality, they are doing so judiciously with a measured response to its significance in the way they ought to govern their lives. Being depicted in the process of such reflection, therefore, is a statement of their humanism in addition to its being a testament of their faith.


Interpreting the text of the human body is often more problematic than interpreting the significance of inanimate objects because of the transient nature of the human mind. Artistic representations of things or of humans in general can have quite different meanings from portraits of specific persons. Indeed, "any portrait is essentially denotative, that is to say, it refers specifically to a human being, that human being has or had a name, and that name, a proper name, identifies that individual and distinguishes him or her from all others" (Brilliant 46). Similarly, an object can be assigned the status of being an emblem, but the use made of the object, or the intent behind its use in relation to a particular subject, varies from person to person, which is what can make an emblem impresaic. Harry Berger elucidates this point:

Portraits tell stories: they are interpretations of their sitters, visual narratives for which we assume sitters and painters are, in varying degrees, responsible. In that sense they are representations of both the sitter’s and the painter’s self-representation. Additionally, since art history has been going on for a long time, they come to us framed within the interpretations, representations, and self-representations of art historians.

He goes further to add that "stories that constitute the physiognomic species are woven of four different strands of commentary:

    1. on the sitter’s social, political, and/or professional status, and on his or her character, personality, "inner being," moral quality, and state of mind (mood and emotion, ‘gli affetti’);
    2. on the painter’s characterization and the means by which he produces it;
    3. on the sitter’s pose and appearance as the medium of characterization;
    4. on the archival data that provide the information used to confirm or fill out interpretations of a), b), and c)—historical information (or speculation) about the lives, behavior, and practices of sitters and painters. (Berger 87-8)

Gaining insight into these modes of social and artistic discourse helps tremendously in the interpretation of the body as text and is done by asking questions of the portrait or of the historiographer who has invested time in its study. Marcia Pointon demonstrates that

The body...was a work of art in eighteenth-century ruling-class society: how one wore one’s patches, how one held one’s fan, the cut of one’s clothes, the shape of one’s wig—all these made of the body a mobile cluster of signifiers indicating party-political affiliation, class, gender and sexuality...The boundaries were clearly defined and the crossing of those boundaries constituted transgressions that could sometimes become orthodoxies. (Pointon 142-3)

In the case of the woman in this portrait, we already know what her right hand is doing—placed as it is upon the skull. Her left, though, is positioned on her stomach in a concave arch, holding what appears to be a limning (turned away from the viewer), perhaps signifying pregnancy, the perpetuation of life beyond her own and the hoped-for immortality of her and her husband through their children. An impresa imbedded within this image might even be extended to the assumption that the child born was a girl (which is why her left hand is placed on her belly) and the melancholia ascribed to the failed hope in issuing an heir to carry on the true immortality of the family name. This is why the crests that surround the pair are so important, for they provide a pedigree extending into the past that has not yet been perpetuated into the future. Failure to issue a valid heir, another misogynic stab at the inferiority of women, is a living death that lingers long after one’s childbearing years have ceased. This brings us to the flowers on the mantel above their heads, which signify fertility and the continued hope to advance the patronymic line in a country, age and culture based on the laws of primogeniture except in special cases such as those that put women on the throne by Divine Right of God.

While this gives us an understanding of how people approach a text, regardless of whether there is any accuracy to the interpretation, for "our definitions of ‘art’, as well as our standards of judgement, may not coincide with those of the Elizabethans" (Leslie 18), it is really positing a theory of the progressive text of living beings that can be applied to the static text of the portrait or image. If the body can be read textually, and we can perceive certain emblems like a wedding ring within the social construct of our own experience as signifying absolute social norms, then we can establish a more specific theory concerning how it is read. Doing this requires an understanding of the nature of multiaccentuality, which, according to Bakhtin, is "the capacity of the sign to change meaning depending on the circumstances of use as defined by dialogic interaction" (Stam 219). What hermeneutics as a discourse theory tries to do is reconstruct the original process of artistic generation by creating a dialogue between the subject and observer which may reveal what is hidden beneath the suture (say of all those disparate images just described), and what is found is generally something outside the observer’s natural awareness of the world that observer has created around him or herself. Because the observer tries to understand the impresa through the gauze of his or her own experience, the impresa is still able to retain its opacity. Leslie further elucidates this point by stating:

The exact meaning of [any] portrait may be unclear, but that is of less importance to us than the way in which it achieves communication. The onlooker is provided with a series of ‘figures’ and mottoes; but as in an impresa, where brevity and cryptic utterance are essential, the crucial relationships between these elements are omitted. The grammar of the portrait, so to speak, must be rediscovered and supplied by the onlooker, who will thus show himself worthy of comprehending its meaning…the process by which we discover [this] meaning is itself the truest expression of [the sitter’s] ‘filosofia’, of the nobility of his soul (25).

It is this dialogue between the emblem and the impresa, therefore, that generates the essence of the suture, for it binds the transparent with the opaque, creating a union of the two, while still concealing what is implied in the impresa through its overt display of the emblem.

If the body is textual, and the body serves to conceal the soul, then the soul is also textual, and this argument might be stretched to include the syllogistic conjoining of the body and the soul as a union in the same way that the emblem and the impresa are conjoined. During the late middle ages and the early Renaissance, there were popular existential theories of the soul that help to articulate this, namely the theory of traducianism, which held that at the time of conception, during which the physical traits of both the father and the mother are passed to the child, there is also an equal transference of the souls of the parents. That is to say, the soul of each parent genetically molds the soul of the child in the same way that physical DNA molds the body of the child. This concept helps explain the transference of original sin from the first parents, and it is through variegation of experience and culture that such sin becomes personalized into an individual sense of self that establishes a person’s unique character in a society that claims to live by moral absolutes. Because these inclinations or experiences of the individual vary from the standards of the society, they have to be hidden from that society—hence the need for impresaic representations in portraiture that are hidden beneath common emblems.

This theory of the origin of the soul ran counter to that of creationism; the idea that each soul is newly created by God for each body newly created by man forced a hiatus between the dual concepts of man and God as creative forces—it has never been declared heretical, though, in its explication of the generation of the soul and was, in fact, a popular theology viewpoint during the middle ages and Renaissance (Wright). If used to interpret the last segment of images within The Judd Memorial, therefore, (and consequently all sets of images for consistency) a system can be created in which traducian interpretations of textual subjects and objects are intelligible.


There rests, in this image, a lit candle upon the mantle flanked on either side by two eggs. These two eggs could represent the generative power of the man and the woman to the right and left of them in the portrait linked by the burning flame of the taper that has almost reached its end. The candle can represent, in this light, continuance of both the man’s and woman’s spirits through the product of their loins. It can also represent time or unity, but it is obvious from the shortness of the candle that either will soon end. In this latter case, George Wither chastises "those Fooles whom Beauties Flame doth blinde,/ [who] Feele Death, where Life they thought to finde" (40) in speaking of a flame around which hovers a fly, or a man whose soul can recognize the light for the divinity of its source but whose baser passions defile any attempt by the soul to attain it. Candles, in this iconology, are more than symbols of the hourglass; their flames are symbols of light and truth. The Catholic Encyclopedia depicts candles as further signifying devotion: "Candles were, and are, commonly used to burn before shrines towards which the faithful wish to show special devotion. The candle burning its life out before a statue is no doubt felt in some ill-defined way to be symbolical of prayer and sacrifice." So, there lies here a wealth of visual options to balance against the captions hovering above and resting below the mantle. The above caption reads, "THUS CURSE WYTHE OVR TYME," and the caption below reads, "WE BEHOWLDE OWER ENDE." In the first line, the meaning could lie in the candle’s burning, in the loss of liturgical time in which to orchestrate the ritual of devotion. This ‘curse with our time’ could also imply the curse of being trapped in time, or in historicity, in a cycle of being born to die over the span of any given number of years. It could even mean the period surrounding the inception and execution of the portrait, i.e. the Elizabethan era’s being cursed because of the turbulence of any given stretch of her reign involving either domestic or foreign difficulties of which the eggs might be indicative. The second line, applied to this segment, could point either to the end illustrated by the candle’s burning or to the end of the family lineage as represented by two unhatched eggs placed on display to demonstrate failed potential.

The point of having pondered the above lies not in the fruits of such speculation on the meaning imbedded within the portrait as text but in the process such speculation involves. The interpretive act of any given era in response to a previous one is replete with misapplications of meaning imposed upon the emblems by which that era was defined. A hermeneutic search for hidden meaning through the imprese is even more likely to be mistaken for something that it is not. The misreading of the signs of portraiture can, therefore, certainly lead to a misunderstanding of the age as we superimpose our own cultural values upon the work. This is why the process of the suture becomes so important to achieving a better understanding of the artist’s intent and therefore a clearer vision of the age. Stitching together all of these disparate images reveals a portrait that is representative of a cohesive set of meanings in which all the replicated images support and advance like and parallel symbols within the text. What applies to the corpse should also apply to the skull and to the text that discusses each given part of the memento mori. What develops them is something akin to cross-referencing within the field of the artist whose intent can best be understood in the consistency of his iconography, or his semiotic system, and the unity of theme he would have naturally employed in the execution of his work. Thus, the line "WE BEHOWLDE OWER ENDE" applies not only to the images above the mantel, but also to the images beneath it. The question can then be asked concerning the connection between the candle and the skull or the candle and the corpse or, more to the point, the candle, the corpse, the skull, the two individuals and the text. In one thought, the answer lies in their unified reflection on death. To extend the search beyond that, the question should be asked concerning how this reflection on death is characteristic of the period in which the art was created and how those cultural mores influenced the thoughts and actions of the greater society. By understanding that, we can better understand ourselves and how we came to be what we are. Focusing our attentions on how both poetry and art respond to one another, through the similar modes of discourse employed by the artistic devices of verbal and visual portraiture, can facilitate this process. According to Strong,

The art of painting, like poetry, was concerned with depicting images and events as they should have been, the more to inflame the mind to worthy and virtuous deeds. The painter is concerned with purveying a refined and selected version of the observed world…Painting, like poetry, has a moral didactic purpose. In the way the relationship of poetry and painting, ut pictura poesis, becomes a critical commonplace. (Strong 52)

In further adopting Pope’s dictum and focusing our study upon ourselves, humankind will come to reconcile its opposing passions and might even achieve a more perfect union between those of its body, those of its soul and those that bridge the gap between them.


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