Any visible symbol; a moral maxim expressed pictorially with an explanatory epigram. Books of emblems were popular in Renaissance Europe. The first emblem book was by Andrea Alciato (1492–1550) of Milan; first printed in Augsburg in 1531, it had some 175 editions in several languages. In England Emblems (1635), a religious work, was compiled by Francis Quarles (1592–1644).
The most familiar of national emblems are the flowers that have come to be identified with different countries. The rose has been England's flower since the 15th century, when the land was divided by warring factions, the Yorkists choosing the white rose for their badge and the Lancastrians the red. The roses were united by the marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York to form the Tudor rose, which remains an English royal emblem to this day. The Scottish emblem of the thistle is said to date from the 8th century, when a Danish night assault on Stirling Castle was foiled because one of the attackers cried out as he trod on one, though the thistle is not recorded as a royal emblem in Scotland until the 15th century. The leek is said to have been adopted as the emblem of Wales in Cadwallader's time, when the Welsh wore leeks in their caps to distinguish them from the Saxon invaders. St Patrick is credited with making Ireland's emblem the shamrock, which he used to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity. The lily (fleur-de-lis) is the emblem of France, and the maple leaf that of Canada.
There are also animal emblems, such as the British lion, the Welsh dragon, and the Russian bear. The eagle has been the emblem of a number of countries. The USA chose the white-headed bald eagle, depicted with outspread wings and hence sometimes termed the spread eagle. Austria, Prussia, and Russia all used the eagle, usually the two-headed eagle first adopted by Charlemagne to symbolize the two main regions of his empire, and later taken to signify the union of the Eastern and Western empires. In addition, there are accepted national personalities, such as John Bull standing for England, Marianne for France, and Uncle Sam for the USA.
Alciato's Book of Emblems
white-headed bald eagle
[15 century] The Latin term emblēma referred to ‘inlaid work’ - designs formed by setting some material such as wood or ivory, or enamel,...
A distinctive image or symbol which carries with it a set of connotations for the viewer. Emblems, in the form of crests or arms are often...