Art as Letterform (Part 1)
by Mark Filipas

We have now looked at several illustrations linking a subject to its initial letter. Here we find examples of art as alphabetic letterform. In several cases, not only does the designer form letters from the figures themselves, but his figures also make their own linguistic allusions.

J, V, P, I, and E from various sources.

Jeremiah forms the letter “J”, from a prologue to The Book of Haggai, 13th-century France.

• The initial “V” for verbum is formed by two interlocking figures. This example is from The Book of Zephaniah in a 13th-century French Bible.

• A 12th-century copy of Josephus’ Antiquity of the Jews uses a figurative letter “P”.

• The initial letter “I” for In Anno, introducing The Book of Ezra in the c.1109 Bible of Citeau. The letter is formed by a scribe holding a scroll.

• The 8th-century Sacramentary of Gellone includes this initial “E” for ecclesia.

figurative versions of H, E, and E.

Often, figurative letters were mere decoration, with no linguistic allusions at all. Such instances sometimes took so many artistic liberties that their letterforms are barely recognizable, as we can see with several examples on this page.

• The letter “H” shown above is from an 8th-century Brussels work titled Etymologies.

• A round initial “E” (shown above) from an 8th-century Parisian Sacramentary.

• A capital “E” (shown above) from the same Parisian Sacramentary.

F for Fortuna, D for Diligenza, from Guiseppe Mitelli’s The Dream Alphabet, 1683.

• In 1683, Giuseppe Mitelli designed the figurative Roman letters known as the Dream Alphabet. Each design was not only an allegorical figure posing as a letter, but the Italian names of the pictorial subjects began with their corresponding letter.

His letter “D” (shown above) depicts Diligenza or Diligence, showing a man bracing his feet against a pillar and trying to topple it toward himself; above this is a delfino digrignamento, or dolphin baring his teeth. His letter “F” (shown above) is Fortuna or Fortune, a maiden whose hands and basket of fruit form the shape of the letter; above her is a smaller image of a fenice or phoenix.

Letters from The Bergamo Alphabet, 1390.

• Consisting of tightly interwoven human and animal figures, The 24 letters of the Bergamo Alphabet were designed by Giovannino de Grassi c. 1390. An accomplished Italian artist at the Visconti court, de Grassi also illustrated much of The Visconti Book of Hours, whose illuminations contain several linguistic allusions as well as figurative letterforms.

F, Q, and P by the Master E.S., c. 1466.

• The alphabet of Giovannino de Grassi were part of his “model book”, sketch references to be copied by the students of a master’s studio. De Grassi’s influence can be seen in the letter designs of the German Master E.S.

A, H, L, S, and Z, 1534.

• Peter Flötner of Germany designed this alphabet using the human figure, c. 1534. Figurative letters such as these—when taken by themselves or out of context—are difficult if not impossible to recognize. It is possible that there are alphabetic allusions from this period which could go undiscovered because of unrecognized figurative letterforms.

The refined figurative letters of an 18th-century animal alphabet.

• Anonymous letter designs (shown above) from an 18th-century alphabet, Netherlands.

I for illustration.

• This page and detail is taken from the Visconti Officium, second half of the 14th-century. The manuscript was made for Gian Galeazzo Visconti and Filippo Maria Visconti, Dukes of Milan.

The example above shows a figurative letter “I”, and depicts a scribe demonstrating the art of illustro or illustration to his students. The image is nearly unrecognizable as a letterform. This manuscript includes 27 illuminated initial letters incorporating animals, portraits, heraldic devices, Biblical scenes, and allegorical figures. Giovannino dei Grassi was a part of this elaborate work, as were several other collaborators.



Continue to Art as Letterform (Part 2)
alphabetic letterforms within the trumps


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· Bologna, Guilia. Illuminated Manuscripts: The Book Before Gutenberg, Anaya Editoriale, Milan, 1988.

· Budden, Sue. Fantastic Alphabets, Bookking International, 1995.

· Wigoder, Geoffrey, editor. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Judaica, Keter Publishing House Jerusalem LTD, 1974.

Copyright © 2002 Mark Filipas – 3/17/02