Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

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A 16th. Century Labyrinth Jeton

Jeff Saward

The 1591 Jeton

Photo: Labyrinthos Archive

Back to Caerdroia Archive

In a previous edition of Caerdroia (“The Labyrinth on Coins & Tokens” Caerdroia 36, pp.4-9) I described several coins and tokens decorated with labyrinths contained within the Labyrinthos Archive, including a jeton (a ‘coin’ created for political or promotional purposes) with a depiction of Theseus and the Labyrinth on its reverse, issued in Burgundy, France, in 1678. Recently added to the Labyrinthos collection is another similar jeton, minted in the Spanish Netherlands in the late 16th century.

29 mm in diameter, the jeton was minted on a thin, soft copper flan, and as a consequence has some damage and wear on the high points of the designs on either side. This is a common feature of jetons of this type, but the designs and inscriptions can be clearly determined. The obverse depicts the head of King Philip II of Spain, accompanied by the inscription DOMINUS.MIHI.ADIVTOR - The Lord is my helper - his personal motto.

The reverse bears the inscription FATA.VIAM.INVENIENT - fate will find a way - with the date 1591 and a small device in the shape of a hand, the mint mark of Antwerp. This surrounds a labyrinth of distinctive design, with a depiction of a small tree at its centre.

This jeton, issued in 1591, was surely an item of political propaganda, a symbol of support for Philip II’s campaign to retain ownership of the Spanish Netherlands, modern-day Belgium and the southern half of the Netherlands itself. Antwerp, now the capital of the Belgian province of Flanders, was at the time on the northern frontier of the Spanish Netherlands and an important port and centre of Spanish trade in spices, textiles and other commodities from the Far East and the Americas.

In 1579 the Union of Utrecht declared the provinces in the north of the Netherlands an independent Protestant state, free from the control of Philip’s Catholic regime. Antwerp, almost destroyed by the Spanish in 1576 in earlier hostilities, was on the front line, becoming the capital of the so-called Dutch Revolt. It fell into Philip’s hands again in 1585 following a long siege and over half of its population, the Protestants, fled to the north. It was not until 1609 that a truce was finally brokered between the Spanish and the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and hostilities did not cease entirely in the region until 1648.

As with the labyrinth-inscribed jeton issued in Burgundy nearly a century later, these items were also popular in the Netherlands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and issued by supporters on both sides of the conflict. Their subjects ranged from patriotic depictions of their leaders and celebration of military victories to political commentary and satire. With the complex political circumstances in Antwerp at the time, it is surely no wonder that the labyrinth was employed as a statement upon the situation.

But the labyrinth on the reverse of this jeton is rather unusual. Although slightly worn, it is not difficult to determine the full design (depicted opposite). Superficially similar to a medieval design, albeit with only nine walls, eight circuits, it turns out to be a simple maze, of sorts, with several breaks in the walls and the outermost circuit in particular.

This design was clearly copied directly from Claude Paradin’s Devises Héroïques, a book of personal symbols, technically known as impresas (see Kern, 2000, pp.199-205 for full details), first published in Lyon, France, in 1551, subsequently expanded in 1557 and reprinted many times, including Paris in 1571 and London in 1591. Likewise accompanied by the inscription Fata viam inuenient (a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid), the impresa is presented as the emblem of Boisdauphin de Laval, who became the Archbishop of Embrun, France, in 1553 until his death the following year. The accompanying text alongside the device in the book explains that the labyrinth should be viewed as symbolic of finding the true path through worldly life, by the grace of God and through adherence to the Ten Commandments.

The only addition to the basic design in the book, seen on the jeton, is the inclusion of a small tree at the centre. Similar trees appear in the centre of labyrinths in other books of impresas from this time, but whether this addition has further symbolic meaning in this specific example, or is merely decorative embellishment is debatable. The tree, a symbol of eternal life or paradise, combined with the motto and the inherent symbolism of the labyrinth, could be seen as indicating that there is a way to be found, either to heaven or to hell, but God alone will help find the right path.  

The use of the fata viam invenient motto in connection with a labyrinth can be found in several other instances from this same time period: as a relief moulding on the ceiling of the palace at Dampierre-sur-Boutonne in France (from c.1550) and beneath the small inset depiction of a man standing at the centre of a small turf labyrinth on the English painting of Lord Russell from 1573. It was also subsequently used on a series of labyrinth decorated medals, issued by Queen Kristina of Sweden, c.1650 (see Caerdroia 36, p.4).

Another connection, and possible source of inspiration for the use of the labyrinth on the 1591 jeton, can be found in another impresa, this time in Girolamo Ruscelli’s Le imprese illustri, published in Venice in 1566 and again in 1584. This depicts a simple labyrinth with the Minotaur (actually a Centaur) at the centre and is captioned In Silentio et Spe (in quietness and confidence) and was the emblem of Gonzalo Pérez, secretary and advisor to Philip II. Clearly these impresas featuring labyrinths and the connection between the symbol and the motto, were popular and well-known within the circles surrounding the Royal court of Spain (and elsewhere) during this period, so it should come as no surprise to find one appearing on a patriotic jeton issued by Philip’s supporters at this turbulent time, in a city at the epicentre of the conflict.

Jeff Saward; Thundersley, England, December 2009.


This jeton is catalogued no.3298 in Le jeton historique des dix-sept provinces des Pays-Bas by J.F. Dugniolle (1876).

Reprinted from Caerdroia 39 - 2009 - pp.50-52

The design of the labyrinth on the reverse of the jeton

Graphic: Jeff Saward

Impresa of Gonzalo Pérez,
published 1566

The impresa of the Archbishop of Embrun, as depicted in the
1557 Lyon edition of Paradin’s Devises Héroïques