Glyphs, cyphers and symbols: Mysteries by Romeyn de Hooghe

It is always satisfying to finally identify works of art in the collection that have otherwise remained cloaked in mystery. Such is the case with a group of 20 etchings and engravings in the Baillieu Library Print Collection, which remained unidentified for decades, until now.

A previous researcher was convinced that these perplexing scenes were Spanish emblems, but in truth, separated from any signatures or other explanatory text, it is possible for a viewer to probe these images for hours and remain baffled as to their correct origin and meaning. This is largely because they are the product of the labyrinthine mind of Dutch artist Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) and their true source is his Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren (Symbols of ancient people), published in 1735.

The structure of his book is unusual; instead of a narrative it presents illustrations with a key, accompanied by copious text, to explain their content. In de Hooghe’s lifetime, the deciphering of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs had not been achieved. Thus, they invited interpretation and additionally, it was common practice in the Dutch Republic to present a symbol and apply layers of potential meaning to it. More

Image: Romeyn de Hooghe, plate 3 from Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der oude Volkeren, 1735. Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne