Last semester, I had the pleasure of visiting Penn State’s Special Collections Library with my Artist Books class to peruse some of the structures, bindings, and content for inspiration. We were privileged to see and interact with a large variety of artist books, including some very old books marking turning points in the historical treatment of cover art and leatherworking. One of these books, estimated to be from 16th-Century France, captured my interest and is pictured below.
I’m most intrigued by the patterning and extensive use of bee symbolism on the cover. Although there was little in the library records as to the specifics of the symbolic meaning of the cover art, I was curious as to the intention in employing insects as pattern, and whether this was in fact a larger trend of that geographic area or time period. Nothing specific was recorded in the Special Collections to illuminate this, so I decided to do some investigating on my own.
The first and most obvious cultural tie I found to the symbolic bee in France was to Napoleon Bonaparte, although his reign was several centuries later than the book’s estimated production. With Napoleon’s rise to power and establishment as leader of the first French empire in 1804, he brought with him a resurgence in the use of bee symbolism resultant of his choice to incorporate them into Napoleonic heraldry. In the unstable climate following the French revolution, Napoleon aimed to use cultural symbols and imagery to unite people in a sense of nationalism, strength, and pride. He chose to do so by referencing past successful empires and leaders by re-purposing their chosen symbols to mark the arrival of a new empire, comparable to that of old.
He was particularly fond of Charlemagne and strove to build an image as the heir of the Frankish kings and emperors, but also sought continuity with the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire, whose symbol was the eagle. He struggled to settle on an emblem for the new Empire and was long torn between the eagle and the bee, which symbolized the Merovingian kings and their founder, Childeric I. In 1653 around 300 cloisonné golden bees (or, some argue, cicadas) were discovered strewn over the cloak of Childeric I in his tomb in Tournai. The ornamental usage of the bee in this context is reflected in Napoleon’s eventual choice of the eagle to center in his coat of arms, but the bee to replace the fleur-de-lis in its myriad of both heraldic and decorative uses. The semi of bees was used in Napoleonic heraldry and bee symbolism littered the royal place, gracing everything from architectural elements to furniture to clothing items.
The bees were considered representative of a Republic of equals under a single leader, as well as a symbol of immortality and resurrection. Both of these connotations strengthened the desired connection of the new empire to the old, and thus to the origins of France. This subversive technique allowed Napoleon to command attention and respect through imagery, and communicate a political message of strength, power, and cohesion to his subjects and potential enemies in a visual language understood by almost everyone of the time, regardless of education or literacy.
Childeric himself may have chosen the bee to draw on its previous uses as a symbol of power as well. For example, the honeybee was both revered as a royal symbol and closely associated with various deities in ancient Egypt for over four thousand years. In this context it symbolized the Pharaoh’s supremacy over lower Egypt, and the Pharaoh’s status as God-King. Bees were linked to other Gods such as Neith, Goddess of the Night, and Osiris, God of Death, through their places of worship, referred to as the House and Temple of the Bee respectively. Bees were also believed to originate from the tears of the Sun God, Ra. Bees have a long multicultural history as symbols of sovereignty because of the perceived role of the queen bee, which was often misconstrued as a king bee, and Childeric may have been one of many who hoped to harness the parallels between social behavior in bees and humans for his own agenda.
Ultimately though, the reign of Childeric I was largely forgotten or devalued and centuries too early to directly influence this book, and Napoleon’s rediscovery of his symbolic language centuries too late. It is possible that the book itself was produced and bound in the 16th century, and then covered or re-covered later in history (perhaps under Napoleonic influence) due to changes in ownership, ideology, or restoration needs. If we assume instead that the book’s current cover and content were produced at the same time however, the bees may be referencing other contemporary European trends not specific to France, such as the Physiologus or the reign of the Barberini Family in Italy.
The Physiologus was a popular and widely distributed book of allegorical descriptions of various organisms, real and imaginary, imbued with Christian morals. The often comically inaccurate information it espoused was commonly accepted as truth because many of the animals included were either unreal or exotic to European readers, and thus inaccessible to personally observe. The Physiologus purportedly portrayed the bee as a virtuous, industrious creature with great collaborative talents. It also claimed however that to induce bee reproduction one had to kill a bull without spilling its blood and store it in a closed house for three weeks, after which a swarm of bees would fly out from the carcass.
The Barberini were a noble Italian family of great influence who rivaled the Medici in politics and as patrons of the arts. They held significant sway in the 16th century, but reached the height of their power with the ascension of Pope Urban VIII, of the Barberini, in 1623. Before their rise to power, the Family name was Tafini da Barberino (of Barberino, their village) and since Tafani translates to “horsefly,” their family crest featured three horseflies. When they dropped the Tafani name and the negative connotations it carried, the Barberini upgraded their coat of arms to include three golden bees instead. The Barberini bee can still be found in various elements of art and architecture throughout Rome.
Though these are all plausible theories, it’s quite possible that the imagery on the book’s cover draws from one of many other historical connotations associated with bees. For example, bees have been attributed with an understanding of many languages, which would be a pertinent quality to instill in a book. Whether any of these ideologies reflect the actual beliefs and intent of the creator of the book is unknown, but we can presume that the bees on the cover likely reference a prominent symbol of the dominant power structure or belief system of the time. Because of the dispersion of wealth at the time and the cost of commissioning a book or binding, the commissioner was probably a person of privilege with ample money to do so, and likely engaged in the symbology of those in power.