Art as Linguistic Allusion (Part 2)
by Mark Filipas

The previous examples show allusions in the Latin and Italian languages. Similar examples can be found in Hebrew manuscripts as well, although these usually illuminated the entire word rather than just the initial letter.

ShORY for The gates of (Mercy), MRVR for bitter herb, NShMTh for soul.

• The Hebrew letters ShORY, meaning The Gates of or Portal of, are illuminated by an open gateway (shown above). The illustration frames the Yom Kippur prayer which begins “He who opens the Gate of mercy for us”, and is taken from the 13th-century Worms Mahzor, Germany.

• The letters MRVR, meaning mahor or bitter herb is illuminated by two maidens tending a plant (above, top right) and alludes to the eating of unleavened bread during Passover. From the Sarajevo Haggada, 14th-century Spain.

• The letters NShMTh begins the phrase Nishmat kol hai, meaning the soul of every living being. The letters are illuminated by a variety of creatures, including a monkey, rabit, fawn and birds. From a Sabbath prayer found in The Rothschild Miscellany, Ferrara, 1470.

B for master of the house, T for receptacle, Th for eyelash.

• A 1712 Haggadah from Amsterdam includes initials illustrated with subjects beginning with each Hebrew letter. The “bet” (shown above) depicts the ba’al ha-bayit, or master of the house. (I do not currently have any other examples from this source.)

• The rite of circumcision is described in a 15th-century manuscript (shown above) from the Biblioteque Municipale, Naples. The Hebrew word for receptacle for overflow (TVK) is illustrated by a figure who seems to mimick the shape of the initial letter tet.

• An initial tav (shown above) from the 1272 Worms Mahzor appears to allude to the word eyelash or eyelid (ThYMVRA).

ChVShONA for Hoshana (1470), and MShH QBL for Moses receives (1492).

The Rothschild Siddur illuminates the letters MShH QBL (shown above, right), meaning Moses receives. The illustration depicts the two tablets of the law descending from the clouds into Moses’s hands; at the foot of the mountain are the Isrealites awaiting his return. The image is taken from the Mishnaic tractate Avot from the 1492 Florentine Siddur.

AShRY for happiness (1470), VYHY for woe (1320).

The Rothschild Miscellany illuminates the letters AShRY, meaning exaltation and happiness, illustrated by the figure of King David playing his harp within a paradisical garden (shown above left). The Miscellany was illuminated at Ferrara in 1470.

The Book of Ruth (shown above right) begins with the word vayhi (VYHY, meaning And it was), and continues “that at the days of the Judges there was a hunger in the land” The opening panel illuminates the word by showing workers harvesting corn. The women are represented with bird’s heads. The illustration is from the Tripartite Mahzor, South Germany, c. 1320.


During the period in which the Marseilles Tarot was evolving, we also find examples of more complex alphabetic imagery. Such designs are more deeply philosophical in nature than the literal allusions presented thus far, and so represent a separate category. The examples below are presented only to show the depth of alphabetic interests at that time.

• Geoffrey Tory incorporated philosophical illustrations into his 1529 Greek alphabet (not shown). His illustration of the Greek letter digamma or “Y” expresses the Pythagorean concept of “the two ways”, showing a choice between virtue on the right and temptation on the left.

M for mysterium magnus, messiah and Moses (1682).

• Jacob Böhme’s 1682 Theosophische Wercke featured several examples of alphabetic symbolism. His design for the letter “M” (shown above) is titled Mysterium Magnum, and makes allusions to Messias and to Moses; his design for the letter “T” (shown below) is entitled Christi Testamenta, showing a large tau cross superimposed with hearts, dove, and a double-branched tree; his design for the letter “W” (not shown) symbolizes the interaction of light and darkness, represented by the words Wohl, German for good, and Wehe, meaning ill.

T for testament (1682); Philosophia’s key to the Alphabetic Arts (1669).

• Anastasius Kircher’s 1669 Ars Mana Sciendi includes an engraving of Philosophia presenting the key to the Lullian Alphabetic Art (shown above). This key depicts 27 letters and symbols which represent universal forces. Thus, “B” represents Bonitas, “D” represents Duratio, “P” represents Potentia, “S” represents Sapientia, “V” represents Virtus, etc.

The alphabet as Alchemical and Cabalistic catalogue, 1616.

• The 1616 engraving in S. Michelspacher’s work Cabala included a circular chart of Roman letters, each one corresponding to an alchemical term beginning with that letter. Thus, “A” is for Aurum (Gold), “L” is for Luna, “M” is for Mercurius, “N” is for Nature, “Q” is for Quintessentia, and “R” for Rebus.


All of the examples presented are intended to highlight the attention given to initial letters during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. More specifically, they show the fundamental link between art and linguistics in the minds of illustrators of the time.

Often, these artists used an additional technique to point us to their allusions: the figurative letterform, several examples of which are shown on the following page.



Continue to Art as Letterform (Part 1)
examples of figurative and illustrative letterforms


Back to the Index


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

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

· Roob, Alexander. Alchemy and Mysticism, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 1996.

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

Copyright © 2002 Mark Filipas – 3/17/02