02 August 2014

Pseudo-Kufic: A Secret Ornamental Language

Giotto Madonna and Child (detail) 1320 National Gallery, Washington DC
Have you ever noticed decorative borders in certain Byzantine or Renaissance paintings that don't seem to make any sense? Beautiful, calligraphic, gibberish... ?

Unknown Spanish Artist, The Resurrection,  1420, Legion of Honor, San Francisco
G. dal Ponte: Madonna and Child with Angels, 1430

Last week I was visiting the Legion of Honor with my good friend and fellow decorative artist, Bruce Thalman, and I was studying some embossed, gilt halos in Medieval and Early Renaissance paintings, as I am wont to do, when I noticed something in the border of a cloak worn by the figure of Jesus in an anonymous panel from the 15th century.   "Pseudo-Kufic"  I said.
"Gesundheit" Bruce replied.

A great number of paintings of the late Byzantine and Early Renaissance era used a similar design device: arabesque lettering, painted as the embroidered decoration in the hems of garments or edges of carpets. Sometimes it was copied from artifacts, and sometimes it was wholly invented. This script is referred to as Pseudo-Kufic.

Giovanni dal Ponte: Madonna and Child with Angels (detail) 1430 Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Influenced by exotic artifacts brought back from the Middle East through both conflict and trade with the Ottoman Empire,   Early Renaissance painters embellished their work with complicated patterns and eastern-style scripts in an effort to create an "oriental" atmosphere, especially with regard to persons or scenes from the Holy Land.   Eastern Kufic script was a particularly ornamental style of calligraphy dating from the 11th century, whose design lent itself well to borders.

Fragment of a 13th Century Qur'an in Persian Naskh and Eastern Kufi scripts, Library of Congress
Giotto Madonna and Child, 1320 National Gallery, Washington DC
There are many famous examples by Giotto, Massaccio, Gentile di Fabriano, and others who used Psuedo-Kufic, faux  or mis-copied Arabic, Phags-pa Mongol script, and even Hebrew-ish lettering in gold, to emphasize the rich, exotic impression of the Eastern world. (I find it this an extremely attractive era in art history.)  It may have been a statement about the cultural universality of the Christian faith; a reverence for history in general; or possibly the ambitions of the church at that time.    

Gentile da Fabriano:  Adoration of the Magi (detail) 1423 Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Arabic style lettering and Mamluk patterns in the halo of the Virgin
I recall an afternoon at the Accademia in Florence where I spent a long afternoon discussing this decorative lettering with Erling, who has an interest in languages as well as cyphers. It's not like I can read Arabic or Hebrew myself, but I was trying to figure out if there was a pattern, which parts are copied or invented, wondering if Giotto had invented his own alphabet, or whether each artist had a code worked into their own singular version of this calligraphy.  And if so, could I decipher it?  The following day, several hours in Hall 2 of the Uffizi, turned this into a minor obsession.
I still notice it all over the place.

Paolo Veneziano:  Virgin and Child (detail) 1354, Louvre Museum. Psuedo-Kufic hem embellishes a rich, oriental fabric.
Lorenzo di Niccolo: St Paul (detail) c. 1400 Legion of Honor, San Francisco  : decorative Pseudo-Kufic script on the sleeve of the Apostle
By the 16th century, orientalism in religious artwork had all but disappeared, as the Italian churches wanted to emphasize a more Roman context to their history.

more about:
Pseudo-Kufic  at Wikipedia
and at  Res Obscura