Storks and Snakes

The beautiful engraving shown on the right depicts one stork feeding a snake to its mate, who is sitting on their nest.  Around the border of the picture is the Latin motto “Virtus pietas homini tutissima,” (Piety is the most secure virtue for men).  The oval shaped image is pasted to the fly leaf of the Bibliotheca Thuana, the catalog of a 17th century library which has been described on this blog in a previous post.  It might make sense to assume that something like this pasted in the front of a book is some kind of bookplate, just one without an owner’s name on it.  However, this particular paste-in turns out to be a printer’s device, something usually seen printed on a title page or at the end of a book to show who was responsible for printing the book.  It is, however, very unusual to see a printer’s device cut out and pasted in a book as this one is, making its purpose a bit of a mystery.

The picture of the two storks is most likely the printer’s mark for the Verdussen Family of printers (See Marques typographique des pays-bas, I, Anvers, Famille Verdussen, no. 26).  The engraving is likely specifically the mark associated with Jan Baptiste Verdussen II (1659-1759), and the engraving is consistent with a late 17th century or early 18th century style.   The emblematic image of one stork feeding another a snake was a popular motif in the Netherlands in the early modern period, and there were apparently at least three other printers who used a similar emblem with a stork as their device around the same time (see Guy de Terverent. Attributes et Symbols dans l’arte profane. Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1997. p. 125.).  As the words around the border of this image, suggest, the image expresses the idea of Christian piety, with the snake symbolizing the original sin that Satan introduced into Eden when he appeared in the form of a Snake.
Inc B-1227 FolioThe emblem of the storks and the snake not only emphasizes the importance of piety, but specifically the importance of virtue and piety within a family.  The woodcut image on the left, from a book printed in 1500, Folio Inc B-1227, emphasizes the stork as a good provider for its family by depicting a trio of little storks eager to be fed the snake.  In this case, it is especially clear that the parent stork is responsibly educating the young as to how they should hunt and devour the snake symbolic of sin.  These images also represents the real-life strong family values of storks, birds that still migrate each year from Africa to the Netherlands, where very often the same pair will unite year after year in the same nesting spot where they rebuild the nest and raise a brood of chicks.  The storks that nested on the roofs of buildings in 17th century Netherlands are the ancestors of birds that continue to do the same thing today, and some specific nests have been in continuous use for generations of storks for centuries (

This family oriented emblem turns out to have been an especially apt device for the Verdussen family to have selected.  The family had a remarkably long run as successful printers in Antwerp, with generations of Verdussens continuing in the printing trade from 1593 to 1897.  Whether this particular version of their device was cut out and pasted into books as an ownership mark by Jan Baptiste Verdussen, or whether there is some other reason it was attached to Penn’s copy of the Bibliotheca Thuana, remains unknown.  Whatever the reason, the image continues to resonate as an expression of the continuity of the importance of teaching and nurturing the next generation.

UPDATE:  Since writing this post I have been informed about another example of this printer’s device used as a bookplate, which is pasted into a book at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, call number BT465.M47 1566.  Thanks to Nell Carson for this information.

For more images of storks and more, visit the POP flickr feed. 

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3 Responses to Storks and Snakes

  1. Liz Broadwell says:

    Another instance (two in the same book, even!) can be found in the Lea Library copy of Juan Bautista Poza’s Sanctissimo Domino D.N. Vrbano papae octauo, Cognatio Cantabrica, Ioannis Baptistae Poza é Societate Iesu, in causa iudiciali tomi primi Elucidarij (1631), call number BT620 .P69 1631.


  2. And yet another example can be found in the magnificent 13th century manuscript (!) of Jacob van Maerlant’s Rijmbijbel (Brussels, KBR, 15001). Below, a 19th C hand has written: “J[an] B[aptist] Verdussen, civitas Antverpiensis / Senator obiit 1773, æt[ate] 75 annorum”


    • The engraving should be considered as an ex-libris, consequently. And one should of course read “civitatis” instead of “civitas”. The quotation has “civit.” which I solved a bit too rapidly.


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