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.  This script is known 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 Arabic, Phags-pa Mongol script, and even faux Hebrew 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. Psuedo-Arabic lettering and Mamluk patterns in the halo of the Virgin
I recall an afternoon at the Accademia in Florence where I spent about 20 minutes 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 could tell this wasn't a real language somehow.  Nevertheless I was trying to figure out if there was a pattern, and 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 all but disappeared, as the Italian churches wanted to emphasize a more Roman context to their history.
And now... ?

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


  1. Lynne, I remember when I was repairing a Greek icon that had split down the middle...and lost some of it's lettering on the scroll the saint was holding. It became one of those delicious down the rabbit hole searches....first to the Russian Orthodox church here in Seattle, and then to the head of the special acquisitions in the Seattle Public Library. The head, a very formal older gentleman in a 3 piece bespoke suit, took one look and told me the name of the saint (St. Martin) and the language (an ancient Baltic dialect) from the 13th century. I was so thrilled I almost fainted. Just to connect with such history and to speak with a person of such learning! Aren't we lucky to have a profession (and the accompanying obsessions) where we encounter this? I have never heard about psuedo-Kufic, and now I will look for it myself...thanks for adding another pointed arrow to my obsession quiver.


    1. Was the ancient Balkan language in your icon Glagolitsa by any chance? When we visited a tiny chapel in Hrastovlje (now in Slovenia) there was some graffiti on the wall and Erling said "oh hey, it's Glagolitsa, cool" I have long since stopped wondering how he knows stuff like that.

      btw that post here: http://www.ornamentalist.net/2011/07/mrtvaski-ples.html

  2. Well, if I didn't have enough obsessions, you bring this one along! I had no idea! This is very fascinating, I will be squinting now over all the museum photos I have of gilded halos. Thanks for a wonderful post.

  3. in the past when I have had a commission to paint something that was to include some non-Latin script, or even non-English text, I made sure I understood what it meant and asked for expert assistance so I wasn't accidentally painting something nonsensical or offensive. But there is part of me that would love to reference this old tradition of using an invented and purely decorative language.

  4. This is absolutely fascinating, Lynne. Unlike you, I've looked at these scripts and thought all along that they said something I just wasn't privy to. And now that you've explained it, it's all so clear. Wouldn't it be fun to invent one's own script!! Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Well there are so many languages and scripts out there, and you cannot possibly have heard of them all, right? It's fun to recognize something and try to read it ( I learned to sound out cyrillic pretty quickly while in Bulgaria) it's like solving a puzzle. And yes I have thought of writing my own LOL

  5. wow , very interesting..thanks...now i am going to be looking for some...

  6. Then there's RETNA, the artist who uses the style of the lettering, but writes it in English (or occasionally Spanish) here's a link to one of his pieces. http://arrestedmotion.com/2011/07/streets-retna-west-hollywood-library-los-angeles-part-ii/img_7286-2/
    I don't actually know what this one says!

    1. oh yeah RETNA does some cool stuff. That's like a graffiti-typography look- actually means something --although I admit I cannot read it, or most graffiti! Or for that matter a lot of calligraphy is so stylized it's illegible but you at least recognize a language-like pattern.

  7. We also did a mural for the Atlantis casino years ago that had a Runic looking alphabet that was actually modified English letters, and put all kinds of messages up like "Money will not make you happy!" etc. I wish I had some pics of that one (pre digital camera era)

  8. Dear All,
    I have read somewhere that in there is as well "Pseudo-Kufic" in one of Masaccios painting. To be more precise in the helo of Maria. Anybody has more information about it?

    1. Hello Anon-- Masaccio's 1423 "Madonna and Child" altarpiece for the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa, has a psuedo-arabic script embossed into the halo around Mary's head. It is for the same reasons as stated above. There are hundreds or thousands of examples of this in kufic, arabic, or faux hebrew looking script particular to this era of painting in Northern Italy.

    2. It's a bit more complex than that. The name 'pseudo kufic' is misleading. Not all of the script is Kufic nor all 'pseudo' in certain cases the painter actually wrote or copied Arabic scripts directly from artifacts garmentso or parchment. I think at least some of this misunderstanding comes from this inherent bias. Another problem is; reading Arabic and reading Arabic calligraphy are two different things. Another way to look at this is through modern graffiti particularly the part of it called wildstyle, where an individual artist creates and or twists characters out of recognition creating a set of personal symbols that are nevertheless rooted in the Latin alphabetical tradition. There is much to say about both the reasons and the technical aspects of this curious bit of history that of course cannot be summed up in a post. I'm working on a software that can hopefully help...

  9. This post was meant to be an introduction to the term that applies to this very specific (and esoteric) detail in art history. The comparison to code-like script of modern graffiti is an apt one (see reference to RETNA in comments above)

    I have 2 other articles on the topic left un-posted because I am never sure if anyone cares and I refuse to simply regurgitate what can be easily found elsewhere. If I write about it, does that mean I am claiming to be the expert on it? Certainly not. And not being an academic my resources are actually limited. But in my research I was thrilled to find the article by Hidemichi Tanaka, a Japanese art historian, who recognized the Mongol 'Phags-pa script (referenced and linked to above) which really illuminates how euro-centric and narrow art history had been on this subject-- all writing in the borders or halos were sort of dismissed as "psuedo-kufic" by some (probably white european historian, I have no idea who) and then this got repeated in art history texts for the next hundred years or more. (Along with the persistent notion of a "Dark Ages" this is something of a pet peeve of mine.) That much of is is made-up, illegible, incorrectly copied, or purely ornamental can certainly give the impression that is an unimportant orientalist decoration, but it isn't fair to lump all of it in as "psuedo" anything, is it? In the meantime I am thrilled to see that in the last 5 years since I published this blog post, that Wikipedia and other resources have become far more detailed on this subject and more people work to decipher this oft-misunderstood work.

  10. I was typing on my phone and somehow my response ended up being addressed to you. I apologize for the lack of diligence on my part. It was not meant to be a response to anyone in particular in this thread, just the rantings of a bored guy crossing Italy on a slow train. I did notice the Retna reference after I posted my comment (although I don't find Retna's work applicable in this case. His is a poor attempt at ornamentalizing and or commercializing something that is otherwise rooted in the deeply coded culture of Chulo handstyle of the West coast). What I was talking about was the early graffiti of the 70s New York Subway.
    As far as European/Eurocentric's collective attempt to erase all Islamic/Arabic influence on their culture, I think its an issue more in need of a collective therapy than any serious intellectual discourse.


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