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I've come across what appears to be an idiom that I'm at a loss as to the meaning, and searched online to no avail. The text is Dæmonologie and Theologie by Nathanael Homes, published in 1650.

…a most exact pourtracture of a Crucifix, limbing forth to the life… (p. 18)

And we finde it true by many experiences, that all men as they use different Arts or wayes, dream differently; which Claudian the Poet limbs out to the life; thus… (p. 95)

O what a lively Iconisme and Character is this of these times; limbing forth to the life, the hereticall impious persons thereof… (p. 201)

Does anyone have an idea, or seen this idiom used elsewhere?

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  • A limner is a type of painter (see thefreedictionary.com/limner). The modern verb is limn; but limb may be an old spelling.
    – Peter
    Aug 11, 2022 at 4:47
  • @Peter 'limn' seems to come from illumine. Which does not explain the OPs question.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 11, 2022 at 8:02
  • @Peter that actually appears to be the case, thank you, see my answer for details.
    – reformed
    Aug 11, 2022 at 17:57

1 Answer 1

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It appears limb is either a copyist error, or a variant spelling of the word limn.

Upon further investigation I found in Polygraphice by William Salmon (published in 1673) what appears to be an explicit definition not only of limning but also limning to the life:

CHAP. XV. Of Limning, and the Materials thereof

Limning is an Art whereby in water colours, we strive to resemble nature in every thing to the life.

CHAP. VIII. Of Limning to the life in general

First draw it with colours, neatly and to the life; then wash it roughly as the rest…

The meaning of to the life appears readily available in modern English:

to the life - Showing an exact likeness or resemblance to another person, place, or thing. (The Free Dictionary)

With all things considered, it appears as though limbing or limning to the life literally means painting something in a life-like manner, and figuratively, to explain or depict (illuminate). The literal meaning appears to be in use in the first quotation of the OP, and the figurative meaning in the others.

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