The Medieval Review 17.11.02

Bedso-Rezak, Brigitte Miriam and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, eds. Sign and Design: Script as Image in Cross-Cultural Perspective (300–1600 CE). Dumbarton Oaks Symposia and Colloquia. Washington, D.C. : Dumbarton Oaks / Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. x, 294.

Reviewed by:

Catherine Karkov
University of Leeds

Sign and Design developed out of an international conference held at Dumbarton Oaks in 2012. It does not, however, a standard volume of conference proceedings. The essays are of a uniformly high quality, each offering an original contribution to the study of writing and images. It is also a complex and truly interdisciplinary book, and I will not be able to do full justice to all the contributions in a review of this length. Bedos-Rezak and Hamburger's introduction defines the volume's purpose: to explore from a cross-cultural perspective the pictorial dimensions of writing systems, ancient and medieval, particularly with regard to the spatial and plastic potential of letters. They are not interested in the standard relationship between text and image, but in the dialogic roles of image in writing, seeing the surfaces on which writing appears as an "an interactive grouping of support, space, letter, image, and word, a quintet in which each component relates to the other without absorbing or being subsumed by it" (2). All of the authors are committed to the view that script and image are not the same, and there is no engagement with the theory that both script and image (and much else) can be understood as text. [1] The book is divided into three interrelated parts, "The Iconicity of Script," "Text: Imaging the Ineffable," and "Performativity: Iconic Script and the Body."

Part I opens with Anne-Marie Christin's "Visible/Legible: An Iconic Typology of Writing," translated from the French by Stefanie Goyette (19-29), in which she surveys the process through which the legible is born from the visible rather than the linguistic. In her scheme writing evolves through three generations: 1. The invention of writing, during which graphic marks form an interface between language and image--Egyptian or Mayan hieroglyphs for example. 2. The reinvention of writing, a non-chronological succession in which writing systems are the result of processes that are neither objective nor logical. They are "born from societies in which writing participates in an official and institutional fashion in the cultural environment and its memory in the same way as oral language and the image" (26). Her examples are Greek, Latin, or Japanese, in which writing follows phonological codes. 3. "The Lettered Imagination," which sees the development of scripts that expand outside the purely linguistic and pursue new textual or aesthetic qualities. This includes Chinese calligraphy, especially as it was used by the literati landscape painters.

Two papers in this section deal with writing systems from the Americas. Elizabeth Hill Boone's, "Pictorial Talking: The Figural Rendering of Speech Acts and Texts in Aztec Mexico" (31-50) demonstrates the ways in which Aztec pictographs do not reproduce forms, but rather encode ideas and information within a specific context and syntax. The pictographs are not "art," nor were they designed to convey speech, though sometimes they are made to do so. Boone explains exactly how the pictographs should be read, and then goes on to explore how speech is conveyed through speech scrolls. These scrolls do not convey dialog per se, but "function adjectivally, nominally, or verbally," while others "approximate speech that flows from the mouth" (38-39). With the Spanish conquest, speech scrolls changed to record speech acts, and this is especially apparent in religious texts. Thomas B.F. Cummins's "From Many into One: The Transformation of Pre-Columbian Signs into European Letters in the Sixteenth Century" (85-107) deals with the period in which Spanish was the language of empire, with the alphabet, especially in the form of printed grammars, becoming an aestheticized tool of empire. A process that culminated in the de Bry's printed alphabets published in the late sixteenth century. For the Christian Spanish, the alphabet was a gift of God rooted in the Bible and the only language believed capable of transcribing the linguistic sounds of newly conquered peoples. Cummins argues that this coming together of the supposed superiority of the Roman alphabet and its divine origins made it the perfect tool for expressing a vision of European cultural and political superiority. He surveys the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec recording systems (which included pictographs, glyphs, and knots), all of which the conquerors could only understand as "letters" in their attempts to transcribe them.

Ivan Drpić's "Chrysepes Stichourgia: The Byzantine Epigram as Aesthetic Object" (51-69), explores the multiple functions of epigrams, which in Byzantium generally meant verse inscriptions that were either inscribed on objects or accompanied texts, arguing that they should be understood as both literary texts and material artifacts. Some inscriptions survive both in situ and in manuscript records, and in these cases it is clear that they have different materialities, and appeal differently to our senses, according to context. Some epigrams were likened to pearls or jewels adorning objects, and were frequently written, inscribed, or carved from precious materials, such as gold, silver or marble. For the Byzantines, the epigrams were a form of kosmos, functioning, like Derrida's parergon as a liminal space between the intrinsic and extrinsic. While epigrams could be highly decorative, the graphic integrity of the text is always maintained, and the aesthetic and verbal aspects of the epigrams should be understood as inseparable. In "Rebus-Signatures" (71-84), Béatrice Fraenkel examines the complex development of a type of signature that originated in the French Royal Chancery towards the end of the twelfth century, and flourished through to the sixteenth century. The rebus, a personal pictorial mark, is far rarer than alphabetical signa, and represents a balanced coming together of design, official identity, and legal authority. Fraenkel stresses that rebuses must be studied as integral parts of the documents in which they are found, as their locations and functions vary. She argues that they were not meant to be riddles, but rather transformed linguistic signs into images that authenticated the notary act. They developed alongside both heraldry and the notarial profession, and played a role in the development of patronymics, before eventually disappearing with the rise of the signature as we know it today.

Part II consists of four chapters covering Christian, Jewish and Islamic material. The circle of the Q that begins the phrase "Quod fuit ab initio" in the ca. 840 Moutier-Grandval Bible encloses a second circle containing the hand of God holding out a ring. In "Dynamic Signs and Spiritual Designs" (111-134), Herbert L. Kessler uses it to demonstrate the co-production of letter, word, and sign, in which the letter becomes a cosmological diagram. The design becomes a sign referencing the cosmos, creation, the Trinity, Christ's body, and the Eucharist. Kessler argues that it is the circle that generates the designs multivalence, and he shows this through analysis of other initials and images, as well as textual sources. It and other such letters reveal "the essential harmony believed to exist between the world, the word through which it was made, and the incarnate God who brought it into existence" (115). Vincent Debais's "From Christ's Monogram to God's Presence: An Epigraphic Contribution to the Study of Chrismons in Romanesque Sculpture" (135-151) explores Christ's monogram as a hybrid sign that need not be read through any single language, and one that is open to a wide range of iconic or symbolic interpretations. His chapter focuses on a particular form of the monogram found in the Pyrenees on both sides of the border, offering some guides for its interpretation and role within larger sculptural programs. He argues that the chrismon transcends the borders of letter and image, and also acts like a seal, lending its power to the buildings and spaces on which it is found. Debais concludes that it cannot be reduced to a simple monogram and that people in the Middle Ages would have understood it as having multiple meanings and serving multiple functions.

Katrin Kogman-Appel's "The Role of Hebrew Letters in Making the Divine Visible" (153-171) is concerned with a group of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century prayer books, that are among the most lavish Hebrew manuscripts to survive. The liturgical hymns they contain, many addressing God, frequently open with lavish golden initial words that figure God. Some are integrated into larger decorated panels, or full-page layouts, becoming parts of larger symbolic or figural narratives. Words, for example, are used to represent God's presence in the Temple, at the Last Judgment, and God as divine protector, with the gold itself conveying the idea of divine light. The chapter also sets the imagery within the context of twelfth- and thirteenth-century debates over issues of anthropomorphism. İrvin Cemil Schick's, "The Content of Form: Islamic Calligraphy between Text and Representation" (173-194) examines the "intermediacy" of Islamic calligraphy between text and art. Islam has had a term for this "beautiful script" since the eleventh century, although such script can certainly be seen in manuscripts of the Qur'ān by the ninth century. Calligraphy, and especially inscriptions, served many functions, with some texts meant to be read, others considered apotropaic or talismanic. Individual letters could carry symbolism or imagistic references, and pictorial calligraphy could be shaped into the images to which the words or letters referred, though this was not always the case. Ultimately, calligraphy is an expression of the centrality of writing across all media in the Islamic world.

Part III opens with Irene Winter's "Text on/in Monuments: 'Lapidary Style' in Ancient Mesopotamia" (197-218), which covers material dating to well before the chronological boundaries stated in this book's subtitle, though it does make some points pertinent to writing and image in later eras, and it is certainly a fascinating study in its own right. In Mesopotamia the boundaries between text and image were carefully maintained. Winter is concerned with public inscriptions in Sumerian and Akkadian, largely on stone, which were designed for display and for clarity. She analyses texts that were designed to replicate the content of the imagery they accompanied (e.g. the names, titles, and epithets of rulers), those that were designed to complement it (e.g. the Stela of Hammurabi on which the image of god and king are the source of the legal text beneath them), and those that were designed to identify it (e.g. names of individuals). The Stela of Hammurabi also exemplifies the importance of materials. The stone used is diorite, which was highly valued and added to the status and authority of the monument--hence "lapidary style". Winter also explores bilingual inscriptions/monuments, and seals and sealing. She concludes, "the inscribed public work/artifact is constituted by the particular combination of textual and visual signs, each in its own way representational, to which may be added the additional signalling values of material and skill appropriate to object" (217). Anthony Eastmond's "Monographs and the Art of Unhelpful Writing in Late Antiquity" (219-235) explores "teasing and tantalizing monograms," mostly of Byzantine rulers, that seem to undermine the essential idea that writing conveys legible information. It is context rather than content in which much of the meaning of the monograms resides. The monograms of Justinian and Theodora carved on opposite sides of the nave in the church of Saints Sergios and Bakchos in Constantinople, for example, suggest the rulers' presence in the church, their authority and piety, perhaps also the gendered space of the church, as well as presenting their names in a way that could be easily recognized by both literate and illiterate. On the other hand, the monograms concealed in the cornice of St. Polyeuktos in the same city "privilege the essence of the name over the ability or need for it to be deciphered" (226-227), and might best be understood as signs of a kind of legal identity or ownership. He argues that the ultimate function of Byzantine monograms was to convey the human agency behind works of art and architecture.

In "The Performative Letter in the Carolingian Sacramentary of Gellone" (237-257), Cynthia Hahn reads the ca. 800 Gellone Sacramentary as a performative experiment, in which its decorated and historiated initials were designed to instruct and arouse faith rather than illustrate. The figure of Mary bearing a censor and cross in the initial I that opens the manuscript serves both to suggest the smells and movements of liturgical performance and initiates the reader into the text by reaching out towards it. The manuscript's initials mark a new development in the history of the historiated initial that is addressed to the celebrant and his actions, uniting the viewer with the image and text, and Hahn locates this development within the liturgical debates of the period 790-804. The final chapter, Didier Méhu's "The Colors of the Ritual: Description and Inscription of Church Dedication in Liturgical Manuscripts (10th-11th Centuries) (259-277), explores the visuality of script in tenth- and eleventh-century liturgical manuscripts from southern England. Méhu defines visuality as "the potential of imagination and conceptualization provoked by the visual characters of the script" (259), with one of the primary roles of these characters being to promote spiritual understanding or insight. The chapter briefly surveys developments in the eighth through tenth centuries, before focusing in on the Sherborne, Egbert, Winchester, and Lanaleth Pontificals, especially the latter, which Méhu takes us through in some detail. The manuscript opens with two drawings of a priest holding a book before a bishop, and a dedication ceremony for a church. They serve both to convey the structure of the manuscript visually, and to emphasize the role and movements of the bishop. The image of the dedication faces the text of the ceremony, and that text is set out in different colored inks that help to visualize the parts of the dedication process. The ABCdarium helps to visualize the alphabet rite, which in turn inscribes the word into the church, the dwelling place of the Word on earth. The manuscript itself is a 'locus for inscription of the divine Word" (277).

Sign and Design is a beautifully produced and edited book, with only a few minor typos or editorial errors. It is also beautifully illustrated, with 85 of its 118 illustrations in color. More importantly, it is a rich and rewarding read.

------- Note:

1. E.g. John Mowitt, Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).

Copyright (c) 2017 Catherine Karkov

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