A DIY Encyclopedia: G. William Patten’s iconography and symbolism notes

If you are on the hunt for a DIY encyclopedia, look no further than Glancy William Patten’s personal papers. G. William Patten, a local Boston artist, kept meticulous notes about symbolism and meaning ranging from animals to persons to flags of the world.

As discussed in more detail elsewhere on our blog, Patten, born in 1907, began drawing at a young age. Throughout his life, he had numerous jobs that revolved around design, illustration, and engineering, including monument designer, editor of American Art in Stone, and positions at architectural firms. During World War II, Patten even drew fighter plane designs for Vought aircraft company.


G. William Patten drawings of angels, Box 9, Folder 9, G. William Patten papers (MS2003-042), John J. Burns Library, Boston College

In his 30s, Patten began scrupulously recording a world of symbols. Patten’s collection, entitled, “Iconography and symbolism notes, circa 1940s-1980s”, meticulously documents meanings behind every-day objects, animals, and words. What is classified as notes is less marginal jottings than an intensely organized mini-encyclopedia of symbols and meanings. Some of the headings include: Animals A-Z, General A-Z, Groups and Organizations, Countries, Numbers, and Persons A-Z. Almost all categories contain hundreds of entries, many of which are illustrated

Some of Patten’s entries are pretty straightforward, with little description and


Notes on “Donkey”, Box 9, Folder 2, G. William Patten papers (MS2003-042), John J. Burns Library, Boston College

explanation, such as his entry for the animal “Donkey,” which simply reads “Stupidity.” However, other animals are afforded more than 20 pages of possible imagery, symbolism, and drawings. The animals included can be as common as cat, dog, and horse, as well as more obscure animals– such as the “Camel-leopard,” a “curious word combination made by the Roman when naming the giraffe.”

Throughout his notes, Patten covers a wide breadth of symbols, although much of the collection focuses on religious imagery. He goes into great detail on Christian symbols, but also includes Greek, Roman, Pagan, Buddist, and Hindu gods as well– though not in as much detail. Patten’s entries include fables,  lore, definitions, pictures, and sometimes even clippings from newspapers and magazines. For Christian saints, he often becomes as detailed as to indicate a person’s standing in the church with a V for Virgin, M for Martyr, C for Confessor, B for Bishop, etc.


Patten description and drawing about St Denis of France, Box 12, Folder 2, G. William Patten papers (MS2003-042), John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Patten’s sources are not completely known; however, there is evidence to suggest he copied some of his notes from various books on symbology. For example, his entries for the words “Urna” and “Uzat,” symbols in Buddhist and Eyptian traditions respectively, appear to be directly quoted from Elizabeth Goldsmith’s Life Symbols as Related to Sex Symbolism. Additionally, Patten includes a key for his shorthand of church standings (V, M, C, etc.) that is quite similar to a key found in Emblems of Saints: By which They are Distinguished in Works of Art by Frederick Husenbeth. However, Patten’s entries often appear to include quotes, images, and information from numerous sources, demonstrating his commitment to comprehensive depictions.


“Death”, Box 10, Folder 4, G. William Patten papers (MS2003-042), John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Rarely can one witness such an amalgamation of symbols, ranging from such a diverse amount of topics. Patten’s artist ability indicates the care and devotion he put into constructing his mini-encyclopedia. The intricate images in his “notes” bring the entries to life, literally illustrating the meaning behind the words. Anyone searching for a deeper meaning behind an object, person, or creature in their life would do well to start with G. William Patten’s papers.

–Anne Cushman, Reading Room Assistant, MA Candidate in the Department of English

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