The pages of medieval books are generally filled with two things: words and decoration – and a lot of nothingness, the margins. The divide between the two is evident and clear. Words make up the text and are executed with pen and ink, while illustrations, produced with brush and paint, decorate the text. There are manuscripts, however, in which this self-evident truth is turned upside-down: sometimes decoration is created by words, which were meant to be read. This intriguing scenario blurs the divide between text and illustration: it challenges how we define both.
Decoration forming words
Decorative elements forming readable text are fairly common in medieval times. High-quality manuscripts often open with words – or even a full sentence – that are painted with a brush rather than copied with a pen. The artist who produced the eleventh-century page in Fig. 1, for example, used his brush to paint the entire first line of Psalm 1: “Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impirum” (Blessed is the man who has not followed the advice of the impious). Particularly impressive is the first letter, the B, which is decorated lavishly with gold.
Even more elaborate are some of the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which is perhaps the most impressive manuscript that survives from the early Middle Ages (it was made at Lindisfarne at the coast of Northumberland around 700). The page in Fig. 2 shows the incipit (the opening line) of the Gospel of Matthew. While there is a lot to read on this page, the words are actually executed with brush and paint, apart from a few lines at the top. This decorative page – and the others in the book – are commonly discussed in an art-historical context (they are prime examples of Hiberno-Saxon art) and not as expressions of writing (more about Lindisfarne Gospels in relation to this issue in this article).
These magnificent pages blur the boundary between text and image: they present something to read, but nothing has actually been written down – at least not in the traditional sense of the word, with a pen. Curiously, the words on these pages form the start of a text and were meant to be read, not just looked at. In other words, the intriguing hybridity of these pages forced the user to read a painting.
Words forming decoration
Much more unusual is a different mix of text and image: instances where a meaningful scene is made out of words. Delightful examples from manuscript production in the West are Figs. 3 and 4, taken from a ninth-century copy of Cicero’s Aratea, a work of astronomy. The text shows animals that represent constellations (the firm red dots are stars). Curiously, these animal illustrations consist, for the most part, of words written out with a pen.
The text in the hare and the swan is not actually the Aratea itself, which is found lower on the page, out of sight in the images above. The animals are actually formed by an explanatory text by Hyginus, called the Astronomica. Segments of this text are used for graphic representations of constellations: Orion (the hunter) is shown as a hare, the hunter’s favourite prey, while the lovely blue bird is the constellation Cygnus (swan). Word and image are engaged in a peculiar symbiotic relationship wherein one would become meaningless without the other.
A similar tradition is witnesses in Hebrew Torah culture of the tenth century. It introduced a phenomenon called “micrography“, the art of decorating the page with meaningful text written in tiny letters. By the thirteenth century Hebrew manuscripts contained elaborate depictions of individuals, animals and objects (Fig. 5). Hebrew religious leaders protested against this practice of drawing with words, as they figured it distracted from taking in their meaning.
The last word: music
The notion of drawing an image with words was taken a step further in the later Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, for example, we encounter marginal glosses in the shape of objects and people. A particularly elaborate late-medieval example is a variation on this theme: it presents a drawing in the shape of a heart, except the heart is made out both words and musical notes (Fig. 7).
It concerns the so-called “Chantilly Codex”, which contains over a hundred polyphonic songs by French composers. The one seen here is by Baude Cordier and is called “Belle, Bonne, Sage” (listen to it here). As the Renaissance was nearing, word play became a favoured occupation of poets, including in a visual sense. Cordier borrowed the word “Cor” (coeur, heart) from his name and used it for the visual presentation of this song. Cutting-edge design? Hardly. Little did Cordier know that the practice of drawing and writing at the same time was old-school.