This emblem was drawn by the Flemish artist Otto van Veen in his book entitled ‘Emblemata Horatiana’. The emblems in this book, which was published in 1601, illustrate the poems of the Roman poet Horace as the Latin book title implies.
The emblem is seemingly split into five separate scenes which are all set in a tavern or inn. Though the man in the different scenes does look similar I do not think it is the same man whose life is followed throughout the emblem but rather different situations into which a man can get himself.
The first scene is in the top left hand corner of the emblem. It portrays a young man, at the forefront, gambling and seemingly quite happy. The light, the brightness of which is normally an indicator of goodness in terms of morality, is quite good even though gambling was a vice but the true question, which I think that van Veen answers in this emblem, is whether this light will fade out.
The second scene seems to be quite an innocent picture of a man and a woman courting and drinking with a stranger. They are watching the events in the next.
This next scene portrays a more bizarre and eerie situation where an old man and woman are dancing to the performance by a man in the shadows playing the lute. The lute is normally a symbol of love but it can also be a symbol of lust which was also a vice. This scene is much darker than the previous two showing van Veen’s opinion that this couple are doing something morally wrong. The man is showing his legs when he danced which was considered quite unacceptable as people at the time believed people should not show any skin which leads to the thought that this is some sort of dirty dancing especially as the couple and the lute player are masked which depicts deception and gives the feeling they have something to hide or they are too ashamed to show their true identities.
A viewer’s eyes are then lead to look up to see an old man with possibly his wife and their naked child talking to a publican or an innkeeper if one was analysing it. The old man seems to be begging from the innkeeper. The old man’s financial problems can be quite clearly seen from the fact that his child is not clothed and he is poorly dressed and that his hand is outstretched to the innkeeper in a gesture to attempt to gain sympathy. The innkeeper does not seem to be sympathising with the old man and instead pointing figuratively to the other scenes in the emblem showing vice which is partial reasoning for my conclusion of what van Veen is attempting to educate people by means of this emblem.
The final scene is that of an old man extremely sick lying on what could be his deathbed with a doctor studying his urine and maybe his wife by his bedside. This scene is the darkest of all in the emblem as it shows sickness which may later lead to death.
All emblems were intellectual puzzles that hid teachings of morality. Otto van Veen’s morals and general perspective on life were due to his Christian religion and his friendship with fellow Christian philosopher Justus Lipsius who was one of the pioneers of neo-stoicism.
Lipsius wrote two books which show his thoughts about matters related to those depicted in the emblem and in turn give a general idea of van Veen’s thinking on the topics. These two books were ‘Six Books on Politics or Civil Doctrine’, published in 1589 and a book published the year before ‘De Constantia’.
The first set of books influence is quite clear because one of its main theories was that people should be virtuous and prudent. For one to be virtuous one must not engage in sin and vice which some men did as shown by the emblem. Prudence was also another important element in Lipsius’ thoughts on the way in which we should behave and gambling and a seeming loss of money represented in the emblem are in contradiction of that line of thinking on our behaviour.
The second book discusses Lipsius’ theory of neo-stoicism which was a mutation of the ancient belief of stoicism by its combination with Christianity. The reason that this is relevant to this emblem is the belief that when one does something bad in his life it may not affect him instantly but it will later which is why I believe the scenes of begging, sickness and death are in the emblems because if as a young man one’s life is full of vice though it may be bright at the time, as the scene of gambling is, later you will see the effects and van Veen is saying they can cause great misfortune and even possibly premature sickness leading to death.
This emblem is quite a star warning in my opinion to lead a good life as much as possibly for as long as possible so that a morally wrong action will not catch up with you later in life and that those who do sin and participate in vice will be punished later in their lives.