No Dutch poet has ever equalled Jacob Cats in popularity: of his Houwelyck alone some 50,000 copies were sold between 1625 and 1655. His first major publication was the emblem book (for emblem book cf. no. 47) of which two pages have been reproduced on the opposite page. Its title, ‘Alcibiades' Silenus’ is, true to the style of this genre, a three-stage brainteaser: in Greek mythology a silenus was a follower of Bacchus, usually depicted as a bald, stub-nosed old man. In Plato's Symposion the Athenian statesman Alcibiades compares Socrates with the figures representing silenus in the Athenian jeweller's shops at the time: ugly objects, but if you opened them, they appeared to contain all kind of valuables. This had been discussed extensively by Erasmus in his Adagia, and also published separately as Sileni Alcibiadis, resulting in the connotation of silenus being ugly on the outside and valuable on the inside. Cats has used this connotation again in a metaphorical sense for an emblem: at first sight incomprehensible, but on closer inspection containing a moral lesson. But Alcibiades's Silenus is also a Proteus (the sea god who could undergo any metamorphosis he wanted), and an extremely versatile one indeed. In the three parts of his book Cats used the same set of illustrations three times, but with three different sets of text. The illustration is used once to apply to love (the emblem as a symbol of love), once to provide a moral lesson, and once as a pious exhortation. The picture on the opposite page, ‘In front it's sad, from behind not bad’ becomes in part two, ‘On closer observation, there is no desolation’, and in part three, ‘O death, where is thy sting?’. The printer-publisher Hans van der Hellen produced a costly edition in which the 51 engravings are reproduced in all three parts, and a low-budget edition in which the engravings in parts two and three are replaced by apposite texts in Latin and Dutch prose. The Koninklijke Bibliotheek copy is part of a set of ‘works’ by Cats, all bound in gold-tooled red morocco, originally belonging to the library of Prince William V.
Silenus Alcibiadis, sive Proteus, vitae humanae ideam, emblemate trifariàm variato, oculis subijciens. Jacob Cats. - Middelburgi, ex officina typographica Iohannis Hellenij, 1618. 4º. - 144 D 2, p. 52-53