Legends, words and images

More image than text. A leaf from a Pauper’s Bible, a medieval iconographic project aimed at teaching the bible narratives to people who can’t read (Latin).

Writing is a form of painting. Every script is representational, whether of things, as in rebus or logographic scripts, or of sounds, as in alphabets. Letters are signs, images, and they point beyond themselves. But the earliest surviving images predate the earliest known scripts by many thousands of years. We’ve been drawing pictures for longer than we’ve been writing. Arriving late on the human scene, writing and literacy managed to disrupt fairly quickly the oral and representational universe which had hitherto dominated all human societies.

Though language be a code, imagery is no less ‘encoded’. The representational potential of an image leans towards infinity. But to decode it, one requires a specific legend, a guide for lifting meaning out of outline, volume and colour.

The legend is readily acquired through socialisation. Take a look around you, the images we see that our generation has produced are intelligible to us. In many ways, we’ve helped build the legend. We’re contributors of our culture’s iconography.

But many of our generation, like in any generation, are illiterate when it comes to past iconographies. We don’t seem to possess the legend and keys to unlock the meanings which are no longer generated by our own culture, like, say, the internal structure of a medieval cathedral, or the ruins of an ancient Greek temple. Our iconographic vocabulary is weak, the language fails to capture and bring back the meaning encoded in centuries of stone. We are astounded by beauty, but more so by mystery, the gaps left by our own iconographic illiteracy.

The medieval theologians developed the idea that what can’t be read may be displayed to the same pedagogical and rhetorical effect. Unreadable text through readable image. Thus were born the so-called Pauper’s Bibles, a tradition of picture bibles aimed at illiterate readers (if you forgive the oxymoron) as well as many of the complex iconographic elements of sacred architecture, like the disposition of capitals in Romanesque churches or the stained glass window design in Gothic cathedrals.

The root of the word legend, in its meaning of myth as well as key to reading a map or a chart is a specific form of the Latin verb ‘legere’, to read, known as gerundive, which carries a passive sense of obligation: legendae, things to be read. Recovering past legends and extinct iconographies is key to unlocking the mysteries and wisdom of lost worlds.

2 thoughts on “Legends, words and images

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  1. I’m so happy to read here that writing is like painting! I totally agree and as a visual artist I have always felt it in this way and also in the opposite.

    About the tradition of picture bibles aimed to illiterate readers I think we can add some icons in Greek Orthodox church painted in the same way for the same public.

    Thank you for the very interesting texts I’m reading here almost every day!


    1. Thank you so much for the kind words. And you’re absolutely right, sacred painting, such as icons and murals, take their place in the same logic.


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