Art as Linguistic Allusion (Part 1)
by Mark Filipas

Related as it is to miniature illustration, Tarot scholarship requires us to examine one of the most interesting byways of art history: alphabetic imagery. Such images were once a flourishing artform, but now their alphabetic foundations often go unnoticed even by art historians. A full study of this subject therefore necessitates at least some interest in linguistics, as its allusions often reference the Latin, French, German, Italian, Greek, or Hebrew languages.

Such images served at least one of three functions: as linguistic allusion, as letterform, and as encyclopedic device. Below are presented examples of art as linguistic allusion; each letter represents merely one of many similar examples taken from its particular source.

D, L, M, O, and T from various manuscripts predating Gutenburg.

• The “D” (shown above) from a 12th-century French Bible begins the prologue to The Book of Daniel, and illustrates a beast appearing to the prophet Daniel in a dream.

• The letter “L” (shown above) is one of many initials found in The 12th-century Moulins Bible; the letter introduces the word “Librum” but illustrates an entirely different allusion, showing a figure being hanged.

• A 12th-century French manuscript of The Book of Chronicles includes several illustrated initials, including this initial letter “M” (shown above) which shows “Moyshen” or Moses with the tablets of the law.

• The letter “O” for Ozias (shown above) is from the prologue to The Book of Amos, one of many initials in a 13th-century French Bible.

• A 14th-century missal includes this “T” (shown above) which begins the phrase “Temptavit Deus Abraham” meaning God tempts Abraham; it shows the angel staying Abraham’s sword as he is about to sacrifice his son at God’s request.

Q for Quam to marce and D for detectus and draconis, from the 12th-century.

• A 12th-century manuscript of Cicero’s De officiis: Rhetoricorum ad Herennium liber quartus includes several illustrated initials with linguistic allusions. The letter “Q” (shown above) illustrates the phrase “Quam te Marce” which means how to write, and shows a teacher demonstrating the scribal art to a student.

• The initial “D” (shown above) from a psalter c.1170 introduces Psalm 102. The man’s “detectus” or nakedness and the fire-breathing “draconis” or dragon may have been used here to symbolize impiety.

P for Pope (1466) and C for Ascension (850), allusions in Latin.

• Painted in 1466, the initial “P” (shown above) introduces the word “Pastorali”, meaning pastoral. The letter illustrates “Papa” (Pope) Gregory the Great blessing the crozier of the Archbishop of Ravenna, to whom this manuscript was dedicated. The painting shows artistic influences of Farrara.

• This “C” (shown above) from the Drogo Sacramentary, dating from 850, depicts the scene of Christ’s Concedeqs (archaic for Conscensio) or Ascension. This entire work consists mainly of initial letters which incorporate scenes from the life of Christ.

Gothic U and F from c. 1480.

• The c.1480 Gothic alphabet by Marie de Bourgogne incorporates numerous figurative and scenic allusions into its letterforms. Each elaborate initial begins a paragraph in French, but its text in my source is too small to distinguish. Shown above are the “U” which shows a man grasping the mouth of a lion, and an “F” which shows what appears to be a man being hung by his feet.

Venetian animal alphabet, 1579.

• A 1579 alphabet from Venice represents creatures whose Italian names begin with each letter. The “F” depicts the fenice (phoenix), the “H” is for hydra, the “M” is for scimia (monkey), the “D” is for delfina (dolphin), and the “T” is for taurino (bull).

A for Adam and Eve, S for Satan, and D for David, 1595

• Theodor de Bry created an alphabet in 1595 (shown above) which featured letterforms interwoven with Biblical and mythological subjects. The names of each pictorial element began with its design’s letter. The letter “A” shows Adam and Eve partaking of the forbidden Tree, with a double-headed aquila (eagle) suspended from the crossbar; the letter “S” is formed by the sinewy figure of Satan; the letter “D” depicts King David, identified by his lyre; a delphinus (dolphin) hangs from below.

• An illuminated alphabet (not shown) by Joris Hoefnagel was painted in 1596 for the Emperor Rudolf II. His letter “C” illustrates the verse which begins “Cantabo Domino (I will sing to the Lord)”, and depicts a variety of musical instruments and a cherub at the top. His letter “O” illustrates the verse which begins “Oculi mei semper ad Dominum (My eyes are ever towards the Lord)” and shows an orbis (ring), an olor (swan), and a heart with oculi (eyes).

C for calculus, O for organum, and S for sectio, 1627.

• The 1627 Roman letters by Lucas Killian of Ausburg were interlaced with multiple alphabetic allusions (shown above).

His “C” illustrates calculus (calculation); his “O” depicts an organum (organ), and his “S” shows sectio (cutting), as well as a speculum (mirror), sus (pig), and a serpens (serpent).

P for Pampinea (1467), L for laudatio and lux (c. 1545) and E for Ezekiel (1409).

• A 1467 edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron contains several illuminated initials which illustrate characters from the story. The letter “P” (shown above) represents the character Pampinea.

• The letter “L” (shown above) begins the Latin word Lux, suggesting the Light of the Christ child, while the overall scene depicts “laudatio” or the adoration of the shepherds. This initial is one of several from a c.1545 Milanese choir-book attributed to Agostino Decio.

• The 14th-century Breviary of Martin of Aragon is decorated with several historiated initials. This letter “E” (shown above) illustrates Ezekiel’s vision of the four living creatures.

S for scriptoris (c.1435), Q for Quorundam mentes (10th-century).

• The historiated “S” (shown above) from a Spanish codex illustrates King David as scriptoris (writer), sitting with his calamus and ink well. This codex—which contains thirteen such initials—is only one from a series of twenty choir-books made for the Seville Cathedral c. 1435. It is attributed to the Master of the Cypresses.

• The Latin Moralia in Job includes several illustrated initials such as the “Q” (shown above) which represents the phrase Quorundam mentes. The scene shows Job lying in bed and attacked by two demons. The “tail” of the letter is formed by a fox with a snake in its mouth. This 10th-century manuscript is from Milan.

Page from the c.1450 Borso Bible (left), and a detail showing the illustrated “P” (right).

• The Borso Bible was illustrated at the court of Ferrara between 1455 and 1461, and includes numerous historiated initials.

The illustrated “P” (shown above) is composed of several objects whose Latin names begin with this letter. The composite creature has the head and body of a panthera (leopard), the pennarum (wings) of a praepetis (bird), and the tail of a pistris (sea monster); he sits under a palma (palm tree) and behind him is a promonturium (mountain range) mounted with perticae (long poles).

This elaborate two-volume work took several years to complete and required the hands of several of the most prominent artists, including Giorgio Tedesco, Marco dell’ Avogaro, Giovanni da Lira, Giovanni Todesco da Mantova, Giovanni da Gaibana, Sebastiano del Portello, Rodrigo Bonaccorsi, Cristoforo Mainardi, Jacopo Filippo Medici (l’Argenta), Pietro Maiante, G.M. Spari, Niccolo di Achille, and Malatesta di Pietro Romano, all under the direction of Taddeo Crivelli and Franco de’ Russi.



Continue to Art as Linguistic Allusion (Part 2)
examples of Hebrew and Hermetic linguistic imagery


Back to the Index


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