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Real and Imaginary Travels 16th-18th centuries

Anne Bandry-Scubbi
Rémi Vuillemin

Education and Utopia

The Heart’s Travelling Back in The School of the Heart (1647)

Émilie Jehl


The School of the Heart de Harvey dessine un voyage de retour, qui vise à abolir la distance qui s’est établie entre le cœur et Dieu. Les pérégrinations du cœur sont jalonnées d’opérations de correction et de réforme, ou plus précisément de tentatives de restaurer le cœur dans un état antérieur à l’éloignement. Le but des emblèmes du cœur est donc de se rendre à nouveau agréable à Dieu, de retrouver un état de fidélité qui a été compromis et qui se manifeste dans la distance spirituelle et l’inadéquation physique du cœur. Cette contribution se propose de retracer les étapes de ce pèlerinage qui engage tout l’individu dans des processus de découverte, d’exploration, de réforme et de progression.

Texte intégral

1Right from the start, Christopher Harvey’s The School of the Heart identifies itself as an itinerary. On the frontispiece of this 1647 book of emblems, one can read it addresses “the heart of itself gone away from God, brought back again to him and instructed by him.” The aim of the book, thus stated, appears to consist in bridging the distance that has been established between the heart and God by sin and corruption. The destination of the journey is settled, its orientation as well: travelling back towards a lost union with his God, such is the reader’s aim. As a pictorial and textual genre, emblems present engravings accompanied by a text inviting us to decipher the idea to which they refer. Text and image are supposed to work in conjunction so that the emblem’s meaning arises in the peruser’s mind. Emblems resort to symbolic images, namely images which establish a relationship between a signifier and a signified that is not literal, images which have to be contemplated, examined and decoded. The texts that accompany them often direct the reading of the pictures, describing them, moralising them, constantly appealing to the reader’s sense of sight. This is why we can say that emblems articulate images that speak and texts that show. If, at the start, emblems were mainly secular—although the term is to be used with precaution, as of course, the emblem’s moral message was essentially Christian—, that is to say, they provided general moral advice and pictured everyday objects, figures, or even Greco-Roman divinities, by the end of the 16th century the genre became dedicated to more overtly devotional themes and was exploited by authors of various religious persuasions in an attempt to promote their creed. Huston Diehl states that “[t] he emblem soon became popular not only with other humanists, but with Protestants, who used it to advance their reformed theology, and Jesuits, who adopted it as a weapon in the counter-reformation. Emblems, I would like to argue, are important expressions of their own age, a period of reformation and counter-reformation” (51).

2The first emblems mainly featured figures taken from classical mythology or objects from the natural world; but at the beginning of the 17th century, an entire subgenre of emblematics started to take shape: emblems of the heart. Those emblems took as their main focus the human heart, which they understood as a metonymy for man’s interiority. Featuring angels, Christ himself and other religious signs, they sought to involve their reader/spectator in meditative exercises through which, after a careful and detailed analysis of a particular subject or motif, he would experience certain specific emotions that would bring him closer to a state of devotion. One can easily perceive the significance of the image of the heart in such affective piety. The initial movement that heart emblems depict is an inward movement, an imaginary journey into the depths of one’s heart. In these emblems, travelling is perceived as the necessity to go back to a lost state of purity, in which the believer and his heart were the perfect reflection of the divinity that created them. The School of the Heart therefore stages a pilgrimage of and to the heart which is also a journey towards God.

3Harvey’s emblems are profoundly introspective, inasmuch as they urge their observer to engage in an exploration of their inner self; self-knowledge is the inaugural lesson of The School of the Heart. But to advance in this school, the reader/spectator has to submit his heart to perfecting and reforming operations, so that the whole book stages what we might call the heart’s progress. Finally, we will see that the goal of this journey is to forge a renewed union between the heart and its creator, in which the heart has literally been made to conform to God’s Word.

Introspection: the inward journey

4The very existence of heart emblems testifies to a strong introspective bias which many critics underline as characteristic of 17th century poetry. The motif of the heart echoes the recurrent desire to make the invisible visible, to submit man’s interiority to the scrutiny of the divine and even the individual gaze. The heart itself is at the centre of early modern concerns, as William E. Slights expounds: “its structures and motions were reconceived from ancient natural philosophy by Renaissance anatomists, [… the] Roman Catholic iconography of the heart was rewritten and redrawn by Protestant reformers, and […] the amatory narratives of the Middle Ages were reinterpreted in the lyric and dramatic poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (4). In religious emblems, lyric poetry, diaries, plays, devotional manuals of the period, the heart is the visual sign of “explorations of inwardness,” of “acts of individual introspection” (19). As Slights also explains, “the idea that the heart is always open to scrutiny—especially to divine scrutiny—is prominent in both ancient and modern thought. Perpetual surveillance of the heart’s motives serves as reassurance and as warning in the Bible” (1). Indeed, in the Scriptures, this organ is consistently evoked as the seat of emotions, of desires or of conscience. Robert A. Erickson notes 858 occurrences of the word “heart” in the Authorised Version of the Bible, which he then identifies as “the most significant word pertaining to the relation between the deity and humankind” (26). The heart appears therefore as an intimate space which can be scrutinized in order to detect the visible traces of faith, or, conversely, the wreck caused by sin or by unfaithfulness. It offers a “graphic representation of the ideal of human transparency in the eye of God” (Slights, 2008: 2). The heart cannot lie and if one is to live in accordance with one’s faith, it is necessary to turn one’s sight inward and reach this area of the self. This is why Christopher Harvey’s book opens with the necessity, for the reader, to perform this spiritual journey into the folds of his heart:

Turne in, my mind, wander no more abroad,
Her’s work enough at home, lay by that load
Of scatter’d thoughts that clogs and cumbers thee
Resume thy long neglected liberty
Of selfe-examination: bend thine eye
Inward, consider where thine heart doth lie,
How ‘tis affected, how ‘tis busi’ d. (Harvey: 1)

5In Harvey’s book, the motif of the heart is part of a visual narrative of re-education and purification; its emblems depict two child-like figures, a Cupid whose head surrounded by an aura identifies as Amor Divinus, Divine Love (that is to say Christ), and a young female figure which contemporaries of Harvey would easily have recognised as Anima, the Soul. These two figures first appeared in a series of Dutch love emblems, Otto Van Veen’s Amorum Emblemata (1608). In this book, the two putti are featured as Eros and Anteros, and their playful interaction is used to signify the effects and the power of love. The Dutch author resorted to those same figures in a second emblem book on divine love. With added haloes and proper garments, they became Divine Love and the Soul in his Amoris Divini Emblemata (1615). From then on, the use of those two figures was to be a common feature of sacred emblems all around Europe. In Harvey’s book, both characters perform a whole series of operations on a disembodied heart. They “throw it about, they piles dishes on it, shut it in a chest, cut it in half, hammer it, squeeze the world inside it, pour water out of it, burn it, bathe it in sweat, sound its depth with a plumb line, and squeeze it in a winepress” (Bath, 1994: 178). All of these seemingly naïve and absurd operations actually offer a graphic and striking representation of the soul progressing—journeying—towards God. Such violent aggressions are reminiscent of the many metaphors used by courtly poetry to depict the pains caused by rejection on the lover’s heart. They are epitomized in a German woodcut dating back to the late 15th century, Frau Venus und der Verliebte (c. 1485—Slights, 2008: 76): it portrays the goddess of love, standing in the middle of the picture and exerting an astounding variety of torments on the lover’s heart by breaking it in two, burning it, trampling upon it, piercing it with a sword, a spear or an arrow, pressing it, and so forth, while the wretched man kneels in the bottom-right corner. Harvey’s emblems depict the entire range of pains love can provoke, a topos of secular amatory narratives and poems. Transformed, perfected by the conjoined action of Amor Divinus and Anima, the heart is literally taught God’s word as the metaphor of The School of the Heart suggests.

6The heart in the book is supposed to be identified as the reader/spectator’s own. Each emblem opens onto the image, under which one can read the emblem’s title, a Biblical quotation and a distich, all in Latin. These elements were all copied from The School of the Heart’s Catholic model, the Schola Cordis (1629), which is a Dutch work by the Benedictine monk Van Haeften. But Harvey, who was a Protestant, replaced the right-hand page Latin text, a prose lesson, with English translations of the title, the Biblical quotation and the distich (which became a quatrain). He then added an ode that extends across several pages. Adopting the vernacular is of course significant and in keeping with Harvey’s own religious beliefs; with the ode, the whole emblem adopts a deeply personal tone, the voice of the poem’s I-speaker facilitating the reader’s identification with the emblem’s theme. The emblem’s texts are also fundamentally visual, developing the metaphor of the hard heart which has to be made soft so that divine love can penetrate it. Thus in emblem 16, “The Softening of the Heart,” the pictura depicts Anima holding out the heart towards Christ, whose beaming aura envelops the organ as it exudes tears. On the right-hand page, the ode states:

Mine heart is like a Marble ice,
Both cold, and hard: but thou canst in a trice
Melt it like wax, great God, if from above
Thou kindle in it once thy fire of love. (Harvey, 1647: 65)

  • 1 This constitutes, according to Barbara Lewalski, the typical movement of Protestant meditation. Alt (...)

7Christ is likened to a sun, the rays of which are able to soften the believer’s heart and make it more malleable. Texts and picture constantly refer to one another, so that going through the emblem necessitates a constant to and fro movement between words and image. The emblem’s peruser therefore literally applies the emblem’s subject to himself, integrating its tenor while memorising its striking visual vehicle1. The emblem allows the eye that probes it to observe and, most importantly, trigger the effects of divine love on the believer’s heart.

8Harvey’s emblems thus first address the physical eye but seek to trigger their reader’s interior, spiritual vision. The emblem’s pictura and the images that its texts solicit convey spiritual ideas which the reader must reach. An emblem essentially refers to something beyond the materiality of its picture (Spica, 1996: 213): in the case of religious emblems, this harks directly back to the “traditional dualism of Christian metaphysics, which rested on a fundamental opposition of material and spiritual” (Bath, 1994: 166). As each of Harvey’s emblems starts out from a Biblical metaphor, which it converts into a fantastic-looking visual representation, it immediately signals the dual function of these two types of image, which Albrecht Schöne defined in his study of emblematics: the picture acts as a res picta, fulfilling its function of representation, in the sense that it gives the observer something to see; and as a res significans, achieving signification, that is to say, it possesses a secondary meaning concealed behind the veil of the symbol. This is reminiscent of Bishop Joseph Hall’s distinction between two types of sight in Occasional Meditations: “[it] is a good thing to see this material World; but it is a better thing to think of the intelligible World. This thought is the sight of the soul, whereby it discerneth things like itself, spiritual and immortal” (Hall, 1630: 222). Unlike Catholic emblems, such as those by Henry Hawkins, which revel in the material qualities of their depictions (notably by emphasising the “sweetness” of Christ’s gesture), Protestant emblems constantly urge their reader to see beyond the sheer materiality of the picture in order to reach its concealed signification. The components of Harvey’s emblems thus draw their reader into an imaginary journey towards his heart, where he can behold and store spiritual truths.

9By encouraging the reader to adopt the stance of the I-speaker in its poems and by giving him direct access to scriptural teaching, The School of the Heart seeks to drive him towards his own heart so he can witness its dire condition and reform it accordingly. The whole book maps out a sort of itinerarium cordis, a kind of Heart’s Progress.

Itinerarium cordis: “A Heart’s Progress”

10Indeed, the first pages of Harvey’s book depict the heart in a state of spiritual decay. In the pictura of the very first emblem, entitled “The Infection of the Heart,” Eve is leaning against the tree of knowledge, holding in her hand what must be her heart. The snake, curled up around the tree, seems to be whispering his infectious words in it. Small worms have invaded the heart and are coming out of it. Probably the snake’s offspring, they symbolize the disease of the heart announced in the title. Just like an apple full of worms, the organ is sick, infected with words, words one can retrieve in the emblem’s text, which stages a dialogue between the soul and the snake, re-enacting the original sin. The ode furthers the allegorical interpretation of the image, as Eve is equated with the soul. Through the metaphor of disease, the emblem dramatizes Man’s Fall. In the following emblems, the heart is taken away by two demons which the text identifies as lust and luxury, it is hidden in a dark cave which symbolises the believer’s blindness to his own degradation, puffed up with material objects signifying vanity, oppressed by plates and cups embodying surfeit and drunkenness, … Although to us psychological states such as vanity have nothing to do with “physiological materialism” such as a puffed-up heart, one should keep in mind that the seventeenth century was still very much influenced by Galenic “humoural psychophysiology” (Slights, 2008: 19). William E. Slights quotes Michael C. Schoenfeldt’s seminal study, Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England:

Whereas our post-Cartesian ontology imagines psychological inwardness and physiological materialism as necessarily separate realms of existence, and thus renders corporeal language for emotion highly metaphorical, the Galenic regime of the humoral self that supplies these writers with much of their vocabulary of inwardness demanded the invasion of social and psychological realms by biological and environmental processes. (Schoenfeldt: 8)

11This is the light in which we are supposed to read Harvey’s fifth emblem, where a small demon is shown blowing into the heart with a pair of bellows; in the words of Robert Burton, vanity truly “puffs up our hearts as so many bladders” (Burton, 1621: 292).

12“Once moral corruption takes residence in the heart, it requires purgation through diverse acts of scrutiny and refinement” (Slights, 2008: 66). After a series of emblems depicting the devastating and defacing effects of sin on the heart, Harvey’s book moves on to those picturing the cooperation of Divine Love and the Soul, whose actions try to restore the heart to a pre-lapsarian state of purity. The heart is then engaged in a process of purification which pre-figures John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. William Slights underlines the parallel between the two, noticing that “Christopher Harvey’s hearts are coddled and bathed, preparing the path of pure, personal redemption that John Bunyan’s pilgrim was to follow.” Since the heart’s sinfulness is graphically represented as physical inadequacy, its material defects have to be corrected physically. For instance, a hard heart is softened (Harvey’s emblem 16): just like the sun can melt snow, the fire of divine love melts the heart as if it were a mere piece of wax. If a vain heart is “puffed up,” filled with mundane artefacts, it is only fair then that it should compressed in order to be cured of its excessive growth (Harvey’s emblem 15). Throughout the book, therefore, the heart travels on the path of redemption, the visual representation of its trials allowing purely verbal descriptions of human interiority to be made far more immediate, evocative and memorable, facilitating the reader’s approach to, as well as the grasping and integration of abstract concepts.

13The actions that are successively inflicted upon the heart all along The School of the Heart aim at rendering this organ receptive to divine presence. Affects play a central role in the transformation of the heart that will subsequently turn away from sin and devote itself entirely to loving God. The choice of the heart as a central motif thus appears significant, since the organ was commonly described as the “seat of passions.” Indeed, the heart is defined by Robert Burton as

the seat and fountain of life, of heat, of spirits, of pulse and respiration—the sun of our body, the king and sole commander of it—the seat and organ of all passions and affections. Primum vivens, ultimum moriens, it lives first, dies last in all creatures. Of a pyramidical form, and not much unlike to a pineapple; a part worthy of admiration, that can yield such variety of affections, by whose motion it is dilated or contracted, to stir and command the humours in the body. (Burton, 1621: 27)

14Such a definition puts forward the heart’s centrality: it is depicted as an essential part of the body. Although in the traditional hierarchy of man’s body the head is supposed to be the noblest part, here Burton asserts the superiority of the heart, which is equated with the monarch (“king”, “sole commander”, “command”). The heart is also identified as the affective centre of the body, the place where emotions or passions are aroused. This emotive function is of paramount importance in cardiomorphic sacred emblems, which seek to incorporate meditative methods in their mode of reading. Precisely, the ultimate goal of meditation, and so of meditative emblems, was to excite religious feelings. Bishop Joseph Hall wrote that meditation “must proceed in due order, not troubledly, not preposterously. It begins in the understanding, endeth in the affection; it begins in the brain, descends to the heart; begins on earth, ascends to heaven; not suddenly, but by certain stairs and degrees, till we come to the highest” (Hall, 1606: 84-85). Such affective piety is what favoured the recuperation in religious emblems of the two childlike characters Eros and Anteros. Heart emblems recycle common motifs of profane love, such as the heart pierced through by Christ’s shafts. Harvey’s emblem “The Inflaming of the Heart” describes the transformative power of the fire of divine love in such a way:

Lord, thy fire doth heat within,
Warmeth not without alone;
Though it be an heart of stone,
Of it self congeal’d in sin,
Hard as steel,
If it feel
Thy dissolving pow’r, it groweth
Soft as wax, and quickly takes
Any print thy Spirit makes. (Harvey, 1647: 145-146)

15The awakening of divine love in the believer’s heart causes its alchemical transformation, purifying it and making it ready to receive God’s presence. Fire is what allows the heart’s constitution to be altered and transformed. In Harvey’s emblem of the pierced heart, in the ecstasy of love provoked by Christ’s assaults, the believer’s heart is supposed to melt and liquefy. Through piercing, the heart is progressively inflamed, softened and melted, watered with divine dews and human tears. This perception of bodily chemistry echoes alchemical treatises in which the heart functions as a sort of crucible. Tears are said to be produced by powerful emotions that seize and heat up the heart, pressing up blood in it which undergoes transformation because of the heat, evaporate as “spirits” that go up to the eyes and are expelled as fluid. The piercing of the heart therefore functions as an alchemical transformation and purification of this organ which allows its conversion. Images of a broken heart, an open heart, a melting heart or an inflamed heart symbolise the need for this organ to be literally moved in order to welcome God’s imprint.

16Throughout The School of the Heart, this organ undergoes operations of perfection which contribute to closing off the distance, both physical and spiritual, that sin has established between the reader and his God. At the end of its pilgrimage, the heart is expected to be united again with its creator.

The end of the road: the union of the heart(s)

17The trajectory drawn by Harvey’s book, then, truly seems to be an education, in the sense of ex-ducere, driving out of ignorance and sin. The penitent heart can then seek union with Christ, effectively closing off the distance original sin has generated with the divine. The end of Harvey’s book articulates images of spiritual elevation and communion which echo the sources that inform The School of the Heart. Originally, the Schola Cordis was divided into three parts, corresponding to the three stages of the traditional meditative ascent of the soul to union with God: the via purgativa, via illuminativa and via unitiva. Michael Bath explains that “[t]hese constitute the triple way of the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum which goes back to the writings of St Bonaventure and which had always been associated with the process of meditation” (Bath, 1994: 180). In his adaptation of the Dutch book, Harvey abandoned the three-part structure and deleted a few emblems; but he did not alter the sequence of the emblems, so that the School of the Heart still bears the trace of the three stages of purgation, illumination and union. Thus Harvey’s emblem 38 stages the flight of the heart; Bath notes that in the first line of the ode, the poet wishes for a quicker way than “the plodding steps of the via illuminitiva” (Bath, 1994: 185): “This way, though pleasant, yet me thinks is long.” The metaphor of flight is illustrated both by the picture, which shows the Soul releasing a winged heart towards Divine Love, and by the poem, which is one of the several figure-poems in The School of the Heart displaying wing-shaped stanzas in a not-so-discrete allusion to Herbert’s “Easter Wing.” The text thereby mirrors the image and is endowed with what the linguist Austin defined as performative value: the very act of expressing the desire for a flying heart seems to have grafted wings on this organ:

18The following emblems develop images of union and closeness. Love is consistently referred to as the seal that will reunite the heart and God. The desire (and the possibility) to be reconciled through love is made clear by the successive metaphors of bonding, such as in the ode of emblem 39, where love is assimilated to:

[…] the loadstone of the heart, the glew,
The cement, and the soder, which alone
Unites in one
Things that before were not the same. (Harvey, 1647: 158)

19In the picture, Christ and the Soul hold hands above their two hearts, tied together with a rope; Christ extends his right hand and the Soul her left one, so that their hands come together right above the two hearts, symbolising a complete and perfect union. Love is described as having the ability to abolish the difference, the inadequacy between God and the heart which original sin had created. In the end, Harvey’s School teaches the heart how to be the image of God again.

20In his study of the role of the image in Jesuit spirituality, Ralph Dekoninck recalls that the term imago, in patristic thought and in medieval theology, originally refers to the relation between God and the Son in the Trinity, and between the Trinity and man (20). “So God created man in his own image,” Genesis 1:27 tells us. But this relation of identity was compromised by original sin, which plunged man and his heart in the regio dissimilitudinis, which is symbolised by Harvey’s inaugural emblems. Emblems of the heart and Harvey’s in particular hint right back at this idea, that it is a Christian duty to travel to one’s heart, regain control over it and dedicate it to loving God. By turning Biblical metaphors of the heart into pictures and by urging its reader to turn his eye inward, The School of the Heart instructs the believer how to truly conform to God’s Word, how to literally imprint it in his heart. Slights connects this use of the motif of the heart to the need for an “inner record of one’s dialogue with God, written in the heart, [which] became increasingly important in the Reformation” (Slights, 2008: 25). He quotes Eric Jager who underlines that the notion of the heart as a container of devotional memories was extremely “well-suited to the Protestant culture of individual Bible study and self-examination” (Jager: 139). By probing his heart, domesticating it and having it bear the traces of its transformation, the believer truly participates in the construction of his spiritual, better self. Through its perfecting journey, the heart has found its way back to God.

21In the course of its 47 emblems, The School of the Heart charts an inward withdrawal which drives its reader to peruse his heart. This construction of self-exploration and self-discovery is essential so as to acknowledge the heart’s spiritual decay. Revulsion from sin is aroused and powerful religious emotions kindle the fire of divine love in the heart. Harvey’s book draws on the seventeenth-century concern with what is within the human body, which is apparent with the pervasive use of the language of anatomical and spiritual interiority in poems, plays, emblems, anatomical treatises or religious manuals of the period. At a time when William Harvey, Charles I’s physician, was able to touch a young man’s heart and thus establish the way the organ worked, the image of the heart stood for the fantasy of seeing what cannot be seen, a fantasy according to which one can travel into, explore and transform the depths of one’s inner self.



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DEKONINCK R. (2005): Ad Imaginem: Statuts, fonctions et usages de l’image dans la littérature spirituelle jésuite du xviie siècle, Genève, Droz.

DIEHL H. (1986): “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England,” Renaissance Quarterly 39.1, 49–66.

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HALL J. (1630): Occasional Meditations, London. Early English Books Online, accessed 20/05/2014

HARVEY C. (1647): The School of the Heart, or, The Heart of It Self Gone Away from God, Brought Back Again to Him, and Instructed by Him: in 47 Emblems, London. Early English Books Online, accessed 20/05/2014.

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LEWALSKI B. (1979): Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

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SLIGHTS W. (2008): The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

SPICA A.-É. (1996): Symbolique humaniste et emblématique: L’évolution et les genres (1580-1700), Paris, Honoré Champion.

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VAN VEEN O. (1615): Amoris Divini Emblemata, Antwerp. Early English Books Online, accessed 20/05/2014.


1 This constitutes, according to Barbara Lewalski, the typical movement of Protestant meditation. Although, in Catholic meditation, the believer is supposed to apply himself to the subject of his spiritual reflection by projecting himself into an imagined scene, she argues that the Protestant method is exactly the reverse. The believer has to apply the general meaning of the subject to his own personal and individual experience, just as in a typical Protestant sermon (Lewalski: 149-150).

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