The Subjects Utilized For Watermarks

   The subjects for watermarks during the Renaissance followed closely those utilized in the so-called 'high arts' of painting and sculpture. Allegory was very popular during that period, and involved the assignment of specific attributes to particular images. For example, the unicorn was used in high art to symbolize purity and moral strength and the eagle symbolized power and authority. The meanings of these allegorical symbols were well known during the Renaissance, therefore they were very suitable for use in watermarks.

   Dard Hunter, in his book, Papermaking ~ The History And Technique Of An Ancient Craft, noted four basic categories of subject matter for watermarks.

   1.)   The earliest symbols.

   This category consisted of basic geometric shapes, such as circles, crosses and triangles. As noted above, the watermark believed by most researchers to be the earliest one ever made, dating from 1282 and produced at Fabriano, Italy, was a circle surmounted by a papal cross. The 'pommee' cross, a Greek cross with circles placed at the ends of each of the crossbars, was a popular image used by papermakers.

   2.)   Man and the products of man's labor.

   This category consisted of images of the human body and the things that man has created. In regard to the first part of this category, the human body, it should be noted that seldom was the entire human body depicted in a watermark. Full male figures were limited in number, but females were even moreso rare. In a few instances a watermark bearing the image of a mermaid was employed by a papermaker. Most often, a single body part, such as the hand, which symbolized 'fidelity' and 'labour', was used in watermarks. The image of the hand with two fingers bent downward symbolized 'benediction'. The human head was usually depicted as the head of Jesus Christ or some other ecclesiastical figure. In 1339 a French papermill produced the first recorded watermark with an image of Jesus Christ in the form of the 'Vera Icon' or the imprint of the Saviour's face that marked the handkerchief of the saint, Veronica when she wiped the Lord's face on his way to Calvary. Other, later watermarks depicted Christ's head in profile, normally with three strands of hair, which symbolized the Trinity. It was not until the mid-1700s that other prominent personages were depicted in watermarks, produced primarily by French and German papermakers. In regard to the second part of this category, the products of man's labor, watermarks consisted of all sorts of things created by man, ranging from architectural and sculptural ornaments to everyday objects, such as tools, weapons and personal effects. This group of watermarks would include escutcheons or coats of arms. In countries that practiced heraldry, a person's coat of arms was important to his sense of value and worth; what better way would there have been to show off your coat of arms than to have it embedded in your paper? Grouped in this category would be the watermarks which were simply letters, such as the papermaker's initials, and other words.

   3.)   The plant kingdom.

   This category consisted of images of flowers, trees and their leaves, fruits, vegetables and grains. This category also includes combinations of manmade items and plant life, such as a pot holding flowers or a bunch of grapes with a bell or a crown.

   4.)   The animal kingdom.

   This category consisted of images of wild and domesticated animals along with many legendary and fantastical animals. Because animal forms required great skill at creating, they were favorites of watermark artisans who wanted to show off their abilities. A watermark of a bull's head was created as early as 1310 and was just the first of many of the same subject. The bull or ox head was more often than not surmounted by devices such as the cross, a crown, the 'rose of bliss' or other allegorical symbols; in fact, the ox was associated with the Christian virtues of patience and strength, and therefore was employed as allegorical symbol itself. Domesticated animals including goats, horses, cats and dogs were popular images in early watermarks due, perhaps, to their allegorical symbolism. { Click on the following icon to view an example of this type of image, then click on your browser's 'back' button to return here    }. The category of the animal kingdom included a wide variety of aquatic animals, birds and insects. { Click on the following icon to view an example of this type of image, then click on your browser's 'back' button to return here    } Legendary and fantastical animals which were favorites of the watermark artisans included the dragon and the unicorn, the symbol of purity. Dard Hunter, in his book, Papermaking ~ The History And Technique Of An Ancient Craft, noted that over eleven hundred different images of the unicorn had been cataloged for the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

   The book, Les Filigranes: Dictionarie Historique des Marques du Papier des leur Apparition vers 1282 jusqu'en 1600, a survey of watermarks dating from the year 1282 to 1600, revealed that 16,112 examples have been identified as being in use during that period or just over three hundred years.

   The International Association of Paper Historians, in an attempt to establish a registry of watermarks in 1997, identified twenty-six categories of subject matter by which ancient watermarks might be associated. They include:

Human Figures; Men; Parts of the Human Body
Fish; Reptiles; Insects; Molluscs
Mythical Figures
Plants (general); Flowers; Grass
Trees; Shrubs; Creepers
Sky; Earth; Water
Buildings; Parts of Buildings
Transport; Vehicles
Defence and Arms
Tools; Equipment; Clothing
Musical Instruments
Miscellaneous Objects
Insignia of Rank; Sceptre; Mace; Jewellery
Religious or Magic Symbols and Signs
Heraldry; Coats of Arms; Mason's Marks
Geometric Figures
Numbers; Numerals
Individual Letters
Monograms; Abbreviations with Letters
Names (in full)
Unclassifiable Watermarks