Popular from the mid-16th century under the title of Iconologia or Emblemata, the pages of the emblem book usually consisted of an allegorical figure accompanied by a phrase. The phrase could be a motto, a moral or more likely a passage from the Psalms. The illustrations often resembled those found on tarot cards.
In the collection, A Century of Emblems: An Introductory Anthology, Charles Moseley describes the placement of the emblem book within medieval thought:
In the first place, the medieval outlook that saw the entire universe as 'like a book or mirror of our life and death' (as Alanus ab Insulis put it), invested everything with a significance both immediate and sub specie alternitatis. For example, the real or imaginary animals of the medieval Book of Beasts (the beastiaries) had all been given a moral significance over the centuries, and these animals with all their overtones descend unchanged to Renaissance imagery and decoration and picture. Naturally, this sort of general philosophy involves the expectation that serious art, which is, logically, a page in the Book of Nature, will similarly be amenable to interpretation on several levels. Polysemousness--one thing carrying several meanings--is both accepted and admired. (3)
The allegorical nature of emblem books meant that each page was self-contained; the meaning of the text derived not so much from its position within an on-going narrative as from its relationship to the broader, shared iconography of Christian symbolism. Recently Graham has written about the emblematic hyperbook and the ease with which large collections of emblematic books can be held in the HyperCard stack for reference.