The frontispiece as a ‘threshold of interpretation’: Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651)
In the 17th century, books began to acquire frontispieces – an illustration, usually a full-page engraved plate, facing the title page. The frontispiece was often an exquisite work of art in its own right - but what was its purpose in the narrative?
The word frontispiece derives from the French word frontispice which derives from the Latin word frontispicium – frons meaning ‘forehead’ and specere meaning ‘to look at’. Its first English usage was as an architectural term for the façade of a building. Subsequently, the term was probably used more generally at first to refer to the front matter in a book, especially early title pages which were often decorated with architectural features such as classical columns and pediments. Over the course of the 17th century the title page was accompanied by an illustration on the facing page and the form of the word changed to frontispiece – front piece.
Modern readers may be tempted to skip past the front matter of a book, including the frontispiece, title page, dedication, preface, etc., and start their reading – and understanding – from the main part of the text. Indeed, it is rare to find frontispieces in modern books. However, in the 17th century, the front matter of a book indicated to the reader how to engage with and understand the text. Gerard Genette identifies various devices and conventions that mediate between the text and the reader, including titles and subtitles, forewords, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, epistles addressed to the reader, notes, epilogues and afterwords. All invite the reader to participate in the text. Genette refers to these elements as paratexts: they do not belong to the text but sit at the threshold of the text, and add meaning to it:
… text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as the author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. And although we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its “reception” and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book.
(Genette, Gerard, Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 1)
The frontispiece is another form of paratext which sits at the threshold of a book and ensures the text’s presence in the world. It usually demands visual rather than verbal literacy to ‘read’ and decode the illustration. It may offer a visual and metaphorical interpretation of the central idea of the book, particularly if it is complex. The frontispiece may also set the tone of the book, perhaps satirical or specialist. A portrait frontispiece introduces the reader to the author and creates an impression, for example, of power, wealth or intellect. In some cases, the frontispiece instructs the reader how or where to read the book; for example, in an 18th century children’s book the frontispiece might depict a mother and her children reading the book outside, surrounded by nature, to demonstrate the book’s adherence to Rousseauian pedagogy. Whatever the subject depicted, an elaborate frontispiece added greatly to the cost of production but the more striking the illustration the more likely it was to catch the reader’s attention.
Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) contains one of the most remarkable frontispieces of the 17th century and much has been written on its significance. It was designed by Abraham Bosse (ca. 1604-1676), a French artist, in collaboration with the author, and is a striking representation of Hobbes’ thinking on society and government. Influenced by the turmoil of the Civil War, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) developed his theory that only a strong and absolute sovereign could sustain peace. He appropriates the sea monster of the Old Testament as a unifying sovereign of church and state.
The frontispiece encapsulates Hobbes’ central idea in a single image. The Leviathan – the sovereign – is a powerful crowned giant rising above the landscape, wielding both a sword (a symbol of earthly authority) and a crosier (a symbol of ecclesiastical authority). On the lower left, a castle, coronet, cannon, a trophy made up of muskets, sticks, flags and a drum, and a battlefield represent earthly power while on the right, parallel images of a church, bishop’s mitre, and an ecclesiastical dispute (conducted much like a court of law) represent ecclesiastical power.
If you look closely you will notice that the sovereign’s body and arms are made up of the bodies of hundreds of people, all turned to look at him in allegiance, illustrating Hobbes’ argument that:
A multitude of men, are made one person, when they are by one man, or one person, represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that multitude in particular. For it is the unity of the representer, not the unity of the represented, that maketh the person one… And if the representative consist of many men, the voyce of the greater number, must be considered as the voyce of them all. (Leviathan, Part 1, chapter 16)
Whether or not one agrees with Hobbes’s theory of social contract, he is generally considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy. The Devon and Exeter Institution holds the earliest collected edition, published in a magnificent folio format in 1750 – The Moral and Political Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, never before collected together. The volume includes Leviathan with its extraordinary frontispiece – it is hard to imagine the text without it.
Emma Laws, Director of Collections and Research
The full text of Hobbes’ Leviathan can be read here.