Viewing texts Word as image and ornament in medieval inscriptions

Workshop 1: The Limits of Text: Ornaments, Aesthetics and Legibility


 On 11 June 2009, the first workshop of our Beyond Text project, dedicated to the exploration of the visual, non-verbal functions of monumental inscriptions in the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages, took place at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London.

 The first workshop saw the participants from the UK, USA, France, Germany and Turkey meet to discuss their work on the visual qualities of inscriptions in the Classical, Byzantine and Islamic worlds. This was the first occasion for all the members of the network to meet in person and discuss the issues, research questions and further developments of this project. The event was organised as an informal one-day seminar, with individual speakers presenting papers (abstracts may be found below). The format allowed extensive informal discussion.

The workshop, The Limits of Text: Ornaments, Aesthetics and Legibility, specifically investigated the aesthetics of writing. Papers looked at the architectural inscriptions of Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus, monumental inscriptions in Hellenistic cities, Seljuk tiled texts in Konya, Arabic and pseudo-Arabic epigraphy in Norman Sicily and tenth-century Byzantium, as well as the portables arts of Islam. Many issues were raised including the following: were the words written on objects always meant to be read, and if so by whom? Did patrons expect that the texts that they commissioned to be placed on works of art would (or could) be read by everyone who saw them? How were the words perceived by illiterate viewers? In what ways might they have been seen when they are considered simply in terms of their visual appearance and effect, with no thought to their verbal meaning: when a formalist reading is applied to them? How do words appear when they are viewed as material objects in a physical context? How do they function as ornament?

There is a sharp disparity between legible texts – an almost legalistic appearance in which clarity and legibility are clearly central concerns – and highly decorative scripts in which the appearance of text is more important than its contents. Such divisions are most apparent in Arabic and Persian inscriptions in which calligraphic qualities were often rated more highly than clarity, but are also seen in Greek, Georgian, Armenian and Latin inscriptions. There are also cases of deliberately non-legible inscriptions, written in languages not in common usage, made up of coded texts, or phantom writing, such as pseudo-Arabic. One focus of the workshop was to ask what the reason is for these different sorts of texts. How does text work as ornament within an architectural context?

Below are the abstracts of the communications given by our network members, arranged in alphabetical order. Also, please find at the very bottom of this webpage a downloadable file, with the same abstracts, complemented by images .


Antony Eastmond (Courtauld Institute of Art) – Inscriptions and Fictions in Georgia.

A notable feature of the series of great churches erected in Georgia in the tenth and early eleventh centuries are their concern with texts. The cathedrals of Kumurdo (964) and Ishkhani and the monasteries of Oshki (958-76) and Parkhali (late tenth century) in particular devote a great acreage of their wall spaces to monumental inscriptions. These vary from brief commemorations and prayers, to longer foundation inscriptions, to very extensive texts that recount recent historical events or spell out the full finances of a church’s construction costs. They are located in prominent positions – around the outside of apses, or clustered around entrances into the churches. Most are written in the Georgian asomtavruli alphabet: this is the earliest Georgian alphabet, a majuscule (capital) script that first appears in large scale inscriptions in the fifth century AD. The asomtavruli alphabet presents an image of legibility: letter forms are usually large, bold and clear. At Kumurdo, the foundation inscriptions are not incised into the stone, but stand proud against a recessed background, which ensure that the letters are visible and clear in all forms of light. The calligraphy of the inscriptions tends to be careful, with well spaced, evenly sized letters which do not overlap. From a distance and from close to they are eminently legible.

But is this appearance of legibility a fiction? Just how readable is a legible text? This paper examines the relationship between legibility, ornament and readability, and considers the visual functions of legibility. It questions the ways in which legibility is seen as a signifier of truth, and proposes a contrast between the ways in which modern historians use inscriptions to authenticate buildings (i.e. mining them for ‘facts’ about dates, patrons etc.), and possible medieval uses, in which the building authenticates the inscription, which is then reinforced by the monumentality and clarity of the inscription. Similarly it questions the way in which legibility is used a means to convey authority and permanence. Some of the inscriptions studied are very extensive and others are clustered together in groups: the visual strategies of size are studied. Finally, the paper also looks at the balance between legibility and ornament as priorities in the creation of inscriptions.

Tim Greenwood (University of St Andrews) - Reading and Responding to Medieval Armenian Inscriptions.

The notion that there was a single Armenian language in the medieval period is a fiction, just as a single Armenian Church under the headship of the Catholicos was a carefully-constructed fiction. It follows therefore that if some of the surviving Armenian inscriptions reflect regional orthographies and dialects, the same may also be true of their non-verbal and visual meanings, that there may be a range of artistic strategies and aesthetic choices with decidedly regional distributions. By way of illustration, the Armenian inscription of 1187 from Sanahin [Fig. 1] reflects Georgian decorative and epigraphic conventions more closely than Armenian traditions. Sensitivity to regional variation is however compromised by the uneven spread of surviving inscriptions across historic Armenia. A further challenge arises from the predominantly ecclesiastical and monastic context within which the inscriptions were carved or incised; it is not possible to assess how inscriptions may have been employed or understood in non-religious contexts.

A distinction may be made between foundation inscriptions, those commemorating the sponsor and his or her actions, and subsequent inscriptions, whether formal records of later endowments, brief invocations for prayer by an individual or scratched graffiti. The former can be studied in the context of the original decorative programme; the later sometimes complement that programme but they often interfere with the original artistic strategy. The foundation inscription on the southern façade of the cathedral at Ani [Fig. 2], located unusually on a blind arcade at the western end, far from any entrance, is found to be in close proximity to a subsequent Armenian inscription, on the southern end of the western façade, set up by the Byzantine governor of the recently-annexed Ani in the reign of Constantine X Doukas (1059-1067), publishing the duties or levies under which different traders and merchants would operate in future. The governor appropriated the sacred structure deliberately for a mundane purpose, communicating the Byzantine takeover of the city in a demonstrative and permanent fashion by superseding the foundation inscription.

The relative restraint of exterior decoration on medieval Armenian churches affords a certain privilege to carved inscriptions. One small group of foundation single-line band inscriptions from late Antiquity – seven in Armenian and one in Georgian – were wrapped around their structures, thereby unifying the exteriors and asserting responsibility and ownership of the building as if it were a silver chalice or plate [Fig. 3]. A second, much larger group of documentary inscriptions comprise large blocks of text consisting of small incised characters; these are legible close-up but not monumental. [Fig. 4]. Such inscriptions implied permanence and inalienability – important messages in a violent and fluid society. They may also have served as visual illustrations of the word-centred ministries of those serving God inside and, given the weight of words, even as metaphorical shields, protecting all that went on within. The presence of crosses in many inscriptions was intended to advertise a spiritual significance and to deter any attempts at removal or defacement; these communicate the message “Do not touch” non-verbally [Fig. 5].


Ioanna Rapti (Centre de Recherche d'Histoire et Civilisation Byzantines)- Displaying Words: Armenian Script between Text and Ornament.

Since it was invented, in the early 5th century, the Armenian alphabet became a major marker of identity. Carefully collected since the 19th century, Armenian inscriptions have mainly been studied as texts and information. Following the innovative approaches of T. Greenwood (for the period before the Arab conquest) and of J.-P. Mahé (for the churches of Ani), this paper addresses Armenian monumental inscriptions from the medieval period (11th –14th centuries) as visual forms and inquires about their interaction with architecture and space. Beyond the general assumption that inscriptions convey a message of long or everlasting presence and perpetuate memory, a series of examples allow to highlight specific characteristics and functions of the engraved words.

Ani provides a unique case where inscriptions are an essential component of the urban environment and seem to have functioned as markers of public and private spaces. The practice to post legal documents on the wall, introduced under byzantine dominion of the city and perpetuated in the 13th century with the testament of the merchant Tigran Honenc‘ in the eponymous church, appears as a local tradition. Moreover, it raises the question of the “revival” or the “survival” of the public advertisement, a widely spread practice in the Roman world, which had declined in Byzantium by the time of Justinian. Founders’ inscriptions may record not only private piety but also legal data, combining a dedication with the indication of the donations awarded to churches and monasteries. The display in one column, often framed by an arcade, may go back to manuscript legal documents, comparable examples of which only survive, unfortunately, from a much later date.

Secondly, the žamatun of the monastery of Hoŕomos provides a case study of a monastic stone-archive. The standardized formulas of its inscriptions reveal efficient management rather than spontaneous piety, and may have also helped legibility. The distribution of the inscriptions throughout the surfaces, certainly dependant on available space, seems to have respected, at least to some extent, the hierarchy of the building’s façades. Thus, the only two inscriptions recording rules for the community are engraved, significantly, on the exterior of the west façade of the žamatun, and on the eastern wall, close to the entrance leading into the main church. The former (from the year 1227) defends the monastery’s right to mill cereals, and was placed on the most public place of the building. One year later (1228), the second inscription was added, which denounced the corruption of secular lords and the abbot, and defended the monks’ right to sell bread outside the monastery. One may wonder if such regulations were part of monastic charters and whether the monastery used to keep paper or parchment copies of its rules as well as of the acts of donation. A couple of inscriptions listing multiple donations granted by different individuals in the same year may indicate that separate acts were regularly gathered on the wall archive.

My paper also considers the founders’ inscriptions on portals, the most commonly inscribed elements in Armenian architecture after the Arab conquest. Unlike late antique inscriptions that encircled religious buildings, dedicatory inscriptions frame the whole entrance or fill its tympanum, raising in a different way questions of legibility and ceremonial reading. Rather than texts offered to readers, these inscriptions were signs addressing the faithful according to various levels of literacy: literate viewers could probably distinguish letters and words, such as nomina sacra, or even catch information of which they were aware, such as individuals’ and family names. For the commemoration of the founders, performed inside the church, in the sanctuary, during the Holy Mass, it seems probable that priests kept separately specific manuscript registers. The door was not only the focal point of the sacred building, but also its most vulnerable part, from which evil could enter. The inscriptions around entrances, often associated with geometric interlaced patterns, may also have functioned as protective and apotropaic devices, occasionally reinforced by the presence of fighting beasts, wild animals or harpies. The magical properties associated with letters in the late antique and medieval world are also attested in Armenia in a variety of texts, which often echo oral and popular culture.

Finally, the closest analogies between architecture and inscriptions are suggested to be found in the Islamic world, with which Armenian art shares much of the sacred value of the written signs. This leads to the last point examined in my paper, on the relation between inscriptions and images. I discuss as the most eloquent example the two 14th century tympana with sculptural and epigraphic decoration, on the façade of the žamatun of Noravank‘ (probably set one below the other at a later date). On the façade that faces God, amidst the text that crams in the background of the composition, one can clearly distinguish the abbreviated word for God, written in a script much larger and much clearer than the remaining inscriptions, confirming the partial or selective legibility of many architectural inscriptions. In the lower tympanum, depicting the Virgin and child between two prophets, a champlevé scroll emerges from the Ezekiel’s mouth on the left which mingles foliage and letters, surprisingly similar in their appearance to Arabic decorative script, and reading “baŕn ē”, that is “this is the Word” (Logos). Similarly, Isaiah’s scroll, on the right, carries in the middle the word Virgin (koys), readable from right to left, testifying to a shared aesthetics and common models with Islamic art.


Scott Redford (Koç Univeristy) From Legibility to Enlightenment: (Pseudo) Epigraphy in the Karatay Madrasa, Konya.

Finding a mystic component to Islamic art has preoccupied scholars of Islamic art and culture. In this paper, I approach this issue with caution, choosing a building built at a time and place, mid-13th century Konya, when the teachings of  once particular mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi were prominent. Using the content, style and placement of epigraphy and pseudoepigraphy on the walls, arches, and dome of the Karatay madrasa, this paper proposes a way to read neo-Platonic mystical method into the changes in level, script, legibility and non-legibility of the Qur'anic and other quotations in this building.


Charlotte Roueché (King's College, London) - Documents on Stone?

The modern viewer of an inscription is inclined to see it as a unique text, since it is only the stone version which survives for us. But it is important to remember that the contemporary viewer is likely to have been far more aware that this is the inscribed version of a text originally recorded in another medium. Thus, the abundant inscriptions of the Roman period on funerary monuments which prohibit their reuse, regularly refer to the 'copy' (antigraphon) of the text which has been deposited in the civic registry: so for example Inscriptions of Aphrodisias (2007) 2.309, 13.103, 13.111. Similarly, all Hellenistic and Roman honorific inscriptions will have been the product of a deliberative process, which will have approved the wording (see C. Roueché, ‘Written display in the late Antique and Byzantine city’ in E. Jeffreys ed., Proceedings of the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies (Aldershot, 2006), 235-254, esp 241-3: in Google Book). In the third century, the authorities at Aphrodisias collected from their archives, and had inscribed, a series of documents dating back to the first century BCE, which recorded their relationship with the Roman authorities (See J. Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome (London 1982) for the full publication: the texts are all available, with translation and illustration, in Inscriptions of Aphrodisias 2007.)

Other documents are inscribed because the local authorities were ordered to do so by the sender - this tradition starts with the Hellenistic kings, and probably underlies the extensive inscription of imperial rulings in Late Antiquity. Such inscriptions perhaps reflected the power of the ruler by their presence. This all provides a context for the inscribing and viewing of texts in the Byzantine and medieval periods. The volume of inscriptions decreases dramatically after the third century, perhaps reflecting the declining significance of civic processes. Over time, buildings come to be adorned with inscribed texts which are taken from sacred texts - both Christian and Islamic. Here again we see that the inscription is not to be seen as the primary source, but as a reflection and invocation of that primary document. We understand that because we possess the documents of origin: it may be that we should read that understanding back into our perception of the inscribed documents of the earlier periods.

Finally, it is helpful to consider to what extent the relationship between primary document and inscription may have affected the design and presentation of the inscribed text, and how this varies over time and space.


Avinoam Shalem (Munich University) - If Objects Could Speak.

The inclination to ‘animate’ objects or to relate to them as if they bear feelings or characteristics like those of a human being, namely the process of anthropomorphism, might be uncovered in the specific language we use everyday to describe artefacts. Most artefacts’ terms refer to specific parts of the human body. We speak about the feet of a table, the arms of a candelabrum, the head, neck, shoulders, belly and foot of a bottle, the lips of a bowl, and the mouth of a ewer's spout. Of course this inclination might also derive from the indisputable relationship, which exists between our body and objects. In comparison to the relatively less direct correlation of our body to architecture, painting, and to some extent to sculpture, objects are designed to be used, held or worn by us, and their proportions should therefore correspond to the weight, size and dimensions of our body and its limbs. And yet, it seems that this particular human desire hints at the symbolic parallels we would like to draw between them and us. Moreover, metaphorically, especially in medieval prose and poetry, they are clearly compared to leaving creatures. Their textures recall the fine skin of a maiden, their necks are slim and gentle like that of a gazelle, their round cheeks are like disc mirrors, and in several cases they are described as having the power to speak move and act. As far as the artistic process of their making and the shaping of their decoration are concerned, they sometimes bear witness to the wish of the craftsman to adorn them with jewels, necklaces, earrings, and even belts and clothes. The decorative inscriptions, which appear on the objects’ bodies suggest that a voice was also given to them. In medieval Islam, inscriptions frequently appear on portable objects. The inscriptions contain a range of texts. The majority of them include good wishes, Quranic quotations and poetry. But there are also numerous inscriptions of historical character. These usually mention the date and place of the pieces’ manufacture and also the specific names of the figures involved in the creation of the artefact, like the patron, owner or craftsman. Some of the inscriptions are composed in a way suggesting that the objects actually speak, telling us of their function and merits or professing to us good wishes. But the best notion of man’s desire to give objects mouths to talk is the use of the ‘I’ form in these decorative inscriptions. In this type of phrases the beholder is usually addressed by the object. Thus, a clear empathy between the beholder or the owner of the object and the artefact is immediately established.

The best examples for this genre are speaking handkerchiefs. One of the verses embroidered on a handkerchief (mandil), which is recorded in the adab literature of the historian al-‘Ayni (1361-1451), proclaims:

“I am the mandil of a lover pinning (ein besessener Liebhaber),

Consumed by desire, a prisoner of separation.

I was the best of mandils, but

The tears of the lovers have changed me.”[1]

 But, why do we tend to consider objects as having human shapes and even active qualities such as speaking, thinking and even loving? It is clear that conferring these qualities of living organism on artefacts is rooted in our desires or even needs to render objects into human forms and thus to see ourselves – as if mirrored – in the objects. We cannot simply talk about objects as living creatures, and we do not really believe that they are alive. But to discuss this phenomenon by decoding it solely on a binary metaphoric-literal system is to simplify this interesting matter. A general meta level for understanding objects, be it as living creatures or even as having magical qualities that we are unable to control, should be further discussed because, as Mitchell wrote, “The life of images seems to be incorrigible metaphor, a metaphor that we cannot avoid.”[2]


Alicia Walker (Washington University of St Louis) - Between Text and Ornament: Pseudo-Arabic “Inscriptions” on Middle Byzantine Monuments.

Scholars have long observed the presence of pseudo-Arabic on middle Byzantine churches, particularly in Athens and its vicinity. Studies typically discuss these buildings alongside portable objects that also employ pseudo-Arabic motifs. Yet this approach limits consideration of these architectural features to themes and aspects that they share with small scale works of art. This paper focuses on pseudo-Arabic in its monumental context, exploring its dual nature as both text and ornament.  While lack of legibility disassociates pseudo-Arabic from the communicative function of “true” inscriptions, other features suggest that pseudo-Arabic operated in a semi-textual fashion.

Focusing on the tenth- to eleventh-century monastery complex of Hosios Loukas at Phokis, Greece, I propose that the pseudo-Arabic motifs on the exterior and interior of the churches at the site correspond to “language” in two specific ways. First, by imitating the disposition of actual monumental epigraphy, these pseudo-texts stake a claim to the status of inscriptions, rather than simply decorations. Second, the use of pseudo-Arabic may reflect actual Arabic inscriptions on medieval Islamic buildings in the Holy Land that were believed to be Christian loca sancta. In this instance, pseudo-Arabic may be understood as a “language” to the extent that it defines socio-historical groups by differentiating them from Byzantine-Christian identity (associated with Greek language and letters). In both cases, pseudo-Arabic “inscriptions” remain illegible and thus do not function as texts in a conventional sense. Yet by imitating the presence and placement of actual monumental epigraphy, they perform some of the same extra-textual functions as “true” architectural inscriptions.

[1] Cited by F. Rosenthal, “Note on the Mandil,” in idem, Four Essays on Art and Literature in Islam (Leiden, 1971), p. 94.

[2] W. J. T. Mitchell, “Migrating Images. Totemism, Fetishism, Idolatry,” in Petra Stegmann and Peter C. Seel (eds.), Migrating Images. Producing, Reading, Transporting, Translating (Berlin, 2004), p. 16.

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Workshop 2: Memory and Performativity


Our second workshop took place on 12 January 2010, and was dedicated to the theme of Memory and Performativity in monumental inscriptions. It focused on the range of interactions that exist between texts, the monuments they appeared on, and the communities by which they are created and/or read and viewed. Broad research questions regarded the performative aspects of texts: how the layout, arrangement and re-arrangement or reuse of texts affects how buildings are viewed; and the ways in which texts institutionalise and affect communities’ memories in public spaces, by putting/erasing particular texts in/from particular places.

This event was planned as an informal one-day workshop, with presentations from our speakers, and plenty of time for discussion.

The meeting benefited from the presence of some of the attendees of the previous workshop (The Limits of Text, 11 June 2009), and from the presence of some welcome "new entries". Speakers responded to our invitation to reflect on Memory and Performativity discussing the inscriptions of royal palaces in Muslim Spain, the public functions of inscribed acclamations in Classical Antiquity, the relationship between memory and foundation and poetic texts in secular Seljuk architecture, the role of royal monumental inscriptions in the Achaemenid kingdom, and the role of pseudo-Arabic writing as mnemonic trigger in Byzantine architecture.

 Please find below the abstracts of communications given on 12 January at our workshop. It is also possible to download a file with abstracts and images at the bottom of this webpage.


Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) - Performative Memory in Late Antique Iran: Text between Image, Ritual and Narrative.

The sponsorship of monumental inscriptions was a supremely royal practice in the ancient Iranian world. While monumental inscriptions were obviously not a technique indigenous to the previously nomadic Iranian peoples who settled in what is now the Iranian plateau, once established as imperial overlords, the Achaemenid dynasty (550-ca 333 BCE) appropriated it and creatively adapted it along with many other elements of Near Eastern kingship taken from their conquered lands. Very much allied to monumental figural sculpture, in several regions ruled by Iranian kings, including the Iranian plateau, northern Mesopotamia and Hindu Kush, with their rugged, rocky landscape, human activity marked and shaped the cultural experience of the environment, with the vestiges of many different dynasties accumulating at sites over the millennia.  By late antiquity, a landscape of power sculpted and shaped by the accumulated efforts of centuries emerged both as a durable collection of cultural practices and a constant challenge and stimulation for succeeding dynasties- Iranian or otherwise.  The kings of the last Persian dynasty before Islam, the Sasanian dynasty (224-651), were especially enthusiastic patrons.  Along with reliefs, monumental inscriptions thus became one of the most privileged expressions of royal power for millennia of Iranian kings of kings, local rulers and priests. This paper analyzes how the medium became closely associated with the exercise and maintenance of power and explores how inscriptions interacted with the natural and built environment in the service of kings.


Scott Redford (Koç University) - Mnemonic Devices. Building and Writing in Seljuq Anatolia.

This paper begins with a consideration of the implicit association of building and memory in the Islamic world through the institution of pious endowment (waqf), and examines examples of Arabic language foundation inscriptions from Seljuq Anatolia where this connection is made explicit. The body of the paper examines other kinds of writing on buildings: poetic inscriptions, with one exception in Persian, that were found on both secular (palatial, military) and religious (mosque, madrasa) buildings, and how they related buildings to the evanescence of human life, either in a positive or negative way.


Charlotte Roueché (King's College, London) - Reading or Speaking? The Case of Acclamations.

Acclamations - phrases shouted out in unison - are particularly valuable in pre-literate societies, or in any situation where the views - particularly the assent - of a large group of people are required. They were a normal part of religious and public ceremonials in the ancient near east, and in the Greco-Roman world: but the actual process is seldom considered worth recording. We know of titles for benefactors and rulers which were bestowed by acclamation - city-loving, Saviour, even Imperator - but the procedure was too normal to describe. Our understanding of these processes, and their recording, changes in the late antique period. The emperor Constantine ruled that acclamations - favourable or hostile - of provincial governors should be reported to central government (Cod. Theod. I.16.6, of 331 CE). From Late Antiquity we also have the verbatim accounts of the Church Councils; these provide an invaluable record of acclamations and their use in large meetings (C. Roueché, 'Acclamations at the Council of Chalcedon', in R. Price and M. Whitby edd., Chalcedon in Context: Church Councils 400-700 Liverpool,2009, 169-177). At about the same time, from the late third century into the seventh, we find acclamations being formally recorded and displayed. They are inscribed on stone: see an example of a major series at Aphrodisias, ala2004.83: or painted: see another example from Aphrodisias. ala2004.61.

Such public texts appear to record the event of honours being bestowed, rather than the formal record of the honours. The first group of texts cited from Aphrodisias (83) is inscribed on a building which the honorand had restored. The second group (61) honours the emperors. Similar acclamations for emperors at Ephesus are inscribed on buildings and columns along a major street [C. Roueché, ‘Looking for Late Antique Ceremonial: Ephesos and Aphrodisias’. H. Friesinger - F. Krinzinger edd., 100 Jahre Österreichische Forschundgen in Ephesos. Akten des Symposions Wien 1995 (Vienna, 1999)]. In the first case, therefore, the texts may simply replace a more conventional record of benefaction, a civic decree which would have been confirmed by acclamation. The second case, however, suggests that they may record an event - a particular expression of acclamation at a specific place. We may be looking at the record of some ceremonial, of the kind recorded in the tenth century Book of Ceremonies, where processions were greeted by acclaiming groups at particular points in their route. This material therefore gives a new prominence and status to the spoken word. What remains elusive is the more precise function: is this a stimulus to the viewer to say the words again? Or a record of a past event? Or sometimes one thing and sometimes another?

Alicia Walker (Washington University of St Louis) - Remembering Victory, Performing Holiness: Pseudo-Arabic and the Pilgrim's Path at Hosios Loukas.

In this paper, I discuss the extensive pseudo-Arabic “inscriptions” at the tenth- to eleventh-century monastery and pilgrimage complex of Hosios Loukas in Phokis, Greece, arguing that these motifs played an important role in shaping the pilgrim’s experience of the site. While concurring with scholars who have interpreted pseudo-Arabic to function initially as a sign of Byzantine victory over Muslim foes, I differ from earlier interpreters by arguing that over time this meaning was partially displaced by another set of associations which recognized Arabic as the dominant public script of the Holy Land, thereby imbuing pseudo-Arabic with a geographic association that carried religious and political implications. I suggest that in this later phase, pseudo-Arabic adopted an ambivalent role, connoting the sacred character of Christian loca sancta in the East, while ultimately calling upon the viewer to reclaim these territories from Muslim control. My reading depends on a consideration of pseudo-Arabic in its architectural and ritual contexts, paying close attention to its position within the structures of Hosios Loukas and examining the implications that its placement had for pilgrims’ reception of these “inscriptions.”

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Workshop 3: Multilingual Inscriptions and Informal Writing


Our third workshop took place on 22 June 2010.  This event has focused on multi-lingual inscriptions and informal writing. Bi-, tri- and even quadrilingual inscriptions are known from around the medieval world. In most cases such inscriptions have been studied in order to explore the differences of content between the texts, and it is conventionally argued that each inscription was simply aimed at the different cultural constituency that would have read it. However, we have explored the non-textual aspects of such collections: the hierarchies of display and location have been analysed, particularly with regard to medieval Iberia. The implications for literacy and community have been considered in relation to medieval Tunisia, Iberia and Egypt, where the political agenda of monumental writing and effacing have also been addressed. The conscious desire to place multilingual inscriptions together has been examined, and the difference between multilingual vs. multi-script writing has been investigated.

This meeting has also enquired into the distinction between formal and informal writing and their functions, with regard to Armenian manuscript illumination and Fatimid ivory carving. Finally, graffiti have represented an important area of investigation: informal inscriptions which affect the appearance and interpretation of the buildings to which they are affixed. Questions have included: for whom was graffiti written - is it a public or a private form of writing and how was it meant to be seen? Does its presence subvert other messages of authority conveyed by the building? What are the functions of graffiti inscribed in sacred spaces? What are the challenges facing the scholar (and publisher) of informal writing?

Please find below the abstracts of communications given on 22 June at our workshop.


Antony Eastmond (Courtauld Institute of Art) - Texts, Languages and Authority in Eastern Anatolia.

Between 950 and 1350 the city of Ani, in eastern Anatolia, was ruled by Armenian, Byzantine, Seljuq, Shaddadid, Georgian, Mongol and Ilkhanid governors and kings. Between them they used six official state languages: Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Georgian, Turkish, and Persian. A large number of monoglot, bi-lingual and even tri-lingual inscriptions survive that were inscribed as permanent markers on the stone from which the city was built. This paper explores the ways in which these bureaucratic and official languages were presented across the city, from the walls and gates that marked the borders of the town to the churches, mosques and other buildings that survive inside the walls.

The paper raised questions about the relationship between the location and positioning of texts and questions of authority and legalicity. Many of the texts were laid out in the same way as official charters and firmans, and even use the same bureaucratic language. Nevertheless, the readability of these languages is problematic: who, among the largely Armenian population of Ani, would be able to read an Ilkhanid yarligh written in Persian?

These multi-lingual texts were compared to those from elsewhere in the region, such as the tri-lingual inscription in the Hekim Han near Malatya (1218-20), and the bi-lingual inscription on the doors of the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1224).


Arietta Papaconstantinou (University of Oxford) - Displaying Languages or Understanding Texts? Some Thoughts on the Role and Function of Multilingual Inscriptions in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The most famous multilingual inscription, the Rosetta Stone, is associated for most of us with the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script. Yet bilinguals involving an unknown language do not always come to a happy ending, as several other examples show. This is in great part because the content of the two languages is not always identical. Very often, each section of a multilingual inscription conforms to a different epigraphic tradition, and thus does not produce straightforward linguistic equivalence, even if the general meaning is the same.

Although for scholars today inscriptions are mainly studied for their content, in the societies that produced them, which had relatively low levels of literacy, inscriptions were above all a visual statement. With bilingual inscriptions there were two options: either the scripts were so similar that their bilingual nature was not obvious to the viewer, or this bilingual nature was made manifest, and often even underlined, through the use of different scripts. This paper analyses a number of examples from the late antique eastern Mediterranean showing the variety of ways in which bilingual texts were produced and displayed, and relating those to the nature of those texts (imperial, official, private) and the cultural and political contexts in which they were engraved.

Jonathan Bloom (Boston College) - Is there Latin behind the Aghlabid Inscriptions of Tunisia?

This presentation focused on the corpus of early Islamic (9th-10th century) inscriptions from Tunisia when the region was ruled by the Aghlabid and Fatimid dynasties.  It is said that when the Shii Fatimid ruler took over from the Sunni Aghlabids in the early 10th century, he ordered the names of his predecessors "erased from mosques, cisterns, forts and bridges and replaced with his own," thereby effecting a symbolic appropriation of the land.  Although an unusually large number of inscriptions survive from the region in this period, none of them shows any ostensible sign of such tampering.  Nevertheless, a careful examination of large and small mosques and the content and placement of inscriptions surviving on them reveals where such inscriptions might once have stood.  Furthermore, it also suggests when and why Fatimid-era inscriptions in Kairouan and Sfax were deliberately defaced.  The presentation concluded by placing all these inscriptions in a larger context by examining the pre-Islamic tradition of monumental epigraphy in the region, the shift from Latin to Arabic as the major language of the region, and the role of Kairouan as a major center of manuscript production.

Tom Nickson (University of York) - The Quadrilingual Epitaph of Ferdinand III in Seville Cathedral.

Four years after conquering the old Almohad capital of Seville in what is now southern Spain, king Fernando III of Castile and Leon died in 1252 and was buried in the former mosque that served as Seville's cathedral till the fifteenth century. In 1279 Fernando's son, Alfonso X, translated his father to the cathedral's east end and buried him in an elaborate new tomb that combined life-size seated effigies with four near-similar epitaphs in Latin, Castilian, Hebrew and Arabic. These multilingual epitaphs have traditionally been understood as a symptom of 'convivencia', the relatively peaceful living together of different confessional groups that supposedly characterised Alfonso's reign. In this paper I re-examine these epitaphs and question this interpretation. Who could have read these epitaphs, and what did they signify to those that couldn't read them? What do differences between the epitaphs reveal about the process of their composition? What was the significance of multilingualism in the royal courts of thirteenth-century Castile and the wider Mediterranean (especially Norman Sicily)? How do the epitaphs relate to the rest of Fernando's tomb monument, and how do they articulate a specific notion of Iberian kingship?

Bernard O'Kane (American University in Cairo) - Medium and Message in the Monumental Epigraphy of Medieval Cairo.

We have in Cairo an unbroken sequence of inscriptions on major monuments from the 9th century onwards. The size of this corpus enables us to analyze a wide variety of topics, such as the visual aesthetics of texts, their relative lengths, the sizes of the scripts used, issues of legibility or the lack of it, and to explore the make-up and design of the inscriptions from their textual contents to the non-literary uses that they served.

Inscriptions really mattered in Medieval Cairo. They could convey information in many ways, directly by their content, indirectly as indicators of prestige or even as assurances that God's word was being proclaimed from on high.

Leaving behind a building for fellow Muslims after one's death was one of the surest ways to earn spiritual benefit, and the inscriptions on them announced the munificence of the patron, proclaiming his name and royal titles, and ensuring that the endowments he set up for the building would be honoured. In fact another category of inscriptions, which I haven't even had time to illustrate to today, occasionally lists some of the specific properties endowed to a foundation.

Attention could be drawn to them in various ways, through their size, through repetition, and through the care taken with their calligraphy and with intrinsic or surrounding decorative details. However, a large number of inscriptions high up on buildings, even if brightly coloured, always have been difficult if not impossible to read. Most of these are of God's word, the Quran, and had another purpose, that of sanctifying the building on which they were placed. Regarding foundation inscriptions however, admittedly not all, but most were meant to be read and were accordingly placed in locations which made this easier.

Another way of attracting attention would have been through their colours, which brings me back to the chief caveat that I started this paper with, namely that evaluations of what was legible and what was not are risky on the basis of today's evidence, given the lack of these painted colours that would have affected so many inscriptions on carved stone.

Even today they provide a feast for the eye, so we can be sure that their impact in medieval times was much greater.

Sheila S. Blair (Boston College) - Place, Space and Style: Craftsmen's Signatures in Medieval Islamic Art.

The typical Arabic inscription describing the foundation of a building or the commissioning of an object lists the participants hierarchically.  First comes the name of the ruling sovereign.  Next comes the patron, followed by the recipient and the supervisor of the work.  Finally if space were available, the craftsman's name is included at the end after the date, typically introduced by the word ‘amal(work of).  Sometimes, however, craftsman inserted their names in a less conspicuous place in a more informal style.  These informal signatures form the subject of this presentation, in which I show the difference between formal inscriptions and informal ones, concentrating on the set on series of ivory containers made in the Iberian peninsula between 950 and 1050.  The inscriptions on these ivories form a tight group that fits within the purview of this workshop on the arts of late Antiquity and the medieval Mediterranean, and from these examples we can draw parallels across the Islamic lands as far as Central Asia and India over the next six hundred years.


Charlotte Roueché (King's College, London) - Invisible Graffiti: The Challenge of Publication.

The recording and presentation of inscribed texts has always been influenced by practical, logistical considerations. The early travellers who recorded texts often had a very limited time in which to do so, and were working in difficult circumstances: when Charles Fellows visited Aphrodisias in 1840 he reports that there was plague in the village, and his transcriptions are noticeably slapdash. Robert Wood ran out of paper on which to record what he saw, and so used the margins of his copy of Homer.

In such circumstances it was quite reasonable for travellers to focus on transcribing the text, with little or no description of the support. A major change came with the gradual introduction of photography. The cumbersome and expensive equipment was at first only used at major sites; but after the First Wold War travellers started to take cameras out into the field. William Calder, who recorded inscriptions in Asia Minor in the 1920s, commented on how much slower the process was than simple transcription. A consequence has been that inscriptions are now regularly presented with reference to the style of their monument and, whenever possible, to their context.

Photography has also made it easier than ever before to record slight, or non-verbal, inscriptions, 'graffiti', which have often been ignored. When these are verbal expressions, however exiguous, they can be presented in a manner similar to that used for more standard inscriptions; but their interpretation frequently needs a far fuller expression of context. When they are non verbal, they become far more difficult to organise and identify clearly. Yes such material is illuminated by its context and, perhaps equally importantly, can illuminate the functions and uses of that context. It is to be hoped that within the context of online publication such material can be presented and exploited in new ways. Examples can already show how this may help us to understand the uses of various spaces, both private and public.

Ann Marie Yasin (University of Southern California) - Prayers on Site: The Materiality of Devotional Graffiti and the Production of Early Christian Sacred Space.

Like all inscriptions on architectural surfaces, graffiti are inherently material and spatial.  They do not function only (or even primarily) in terms of the semantic content of the texts, but rather the range of their communicative possibilities (their messages, audiences, and effects) are fundamentally a condition of their location and physical properties.  This paper examines what early Christian graffiti can tell us about the lived experience of Christian sacred spaces in the late third to seventh centuries.  Drawing on a diverse range of examples from across the Mediterranean, I point to three key spatial and material aspects of early Christian graffiti in particular.  First, I stress that graffiti do not only function to identify sacred places and indicate the contours of a preexisting sacred topography, but are rather, active means though which to interact with and shape a natural or manmade landscape.  In other words, they transform the supports on which they are inscribed and thereby construct new meanings for the space bound by those material structures.  Second, graffiti speak very directly to the physical action of writing as a response to particular places.  They are, by definition, not planned by the patrons or builders of places.  Rather, I explore the direct testimony they offer of response to a site, and how such inscribed responses in turn elicit other reactions from subsequent visitors including, indeed, the writing of other graffiti.  Finally, examining an individual graffito within the context of the larger corpus of surrounding inscriptions points attention to the social dimension of these texts.  Graffiti, I suggest, both establish a kind of space for communal action and provide a means of inserting oneself into that community.




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