The very wonderful Medieval Books blog from Erik Kwakkel, book historian at Leiden University, has just run a great feature on the medieval art of drawing with words: in other … ahem … words, where “decoration is created by words, which were meant to be read. This intriguing scenario blurs the divide between text and illustration: it challenges how we define both.”
The customary kind of manuscript illumination is obviously the more accepted form of this, as in works like the Lindisfarne Gospels with their incredible decorative pages – probably the closest that the Western tradition has ever come to the Islamic school of calligraphic devotional art. As Kwakkel puts it, “the intriguing hybridity of these pages forced the user to read a painting.” But, as he continues, “much more unusual is a different mix of text and image: instances where a meaningful scene is made out of words.” Here, you see words and letters actually used to block in or outline what they describe on the paper, as components in a shape as well as of a text. Ad finally, most intriguingly, Kwakkel cites manuscripts for songs where the staves of musical notation and the words of the lyrics are all used to draw out the subject of the song, combining three forms of representation and two senses into one whole.
Erik Kwakkel has many other unique and fascinating details of medieval manuscripts to share, and his blog is always worth a visit. But this has to be one of his most striking and beautiful posts for a while. Magical.
Even now many Jewish kettuba (marriage contracts) include this charming form of illustration.