Viewing texts: Word as image and ornament in medieval inscriptions

Award Holder

Dr Antony D Eastmond

Higher Education Institute

Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Viewing Texts: Word as Image and ornament in Medieval Inscriptions, aims at examining texts as art. It focused on the inscriptions that were frequently inscribed or painted on monuments of architecture in the middle ages. Long, prominent inscriptions are found on Christian and Islamic monuments from around the Mediterranean. These texts are sometimes well known, and have often been examined by scholars seeking to exploit the information they contain to help date monuments or identify their patrons or builders.

Such texts have not, however, been viewed as art, despite, in many cases, the way in which the inscriptions were written made them unlikely to have been designed to be read simply as blocks of text by those that viewed them. The size of the script used, the (lack of) legibility, the location (often high up or in out-of-the way locations), or simply the length of the text all indicate that the actual textual contents were only one element in the make-up and design of the inscription. Instead such texts served a series of different purposes, and the aim of this project has been to explore those non-literary uses of texts.

In a series of three workshops over two years (2009-10), this project brought together a group of scholars who work on all fields of medieval studies from Western Europe through to the Caucasus in the east: their expertise covers Latin Europe, Byzantium, Armenia and Georgia, Seljuq Turkey, and Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria. They all have interests in monumental inscriptions, but have viewed them from different perspectives; all, however, have a shared interest in the viewing as much as the reading of texts. The network shared its research into the visual uses of text, which is currently dispersed among the different cultural and religious divisions which separate research in the humanities.

The first workshop, The Limits of Text – Ornament, Aesthetics, Legibility, took place in late May 2009, and examined ways of approaching texts as ornaments, and considered how they could be viewed as decoration on a building rather than simply being read. The second meeting, Memory and Performativity was held in  January 2010, and considered the interaction between the texts and the monuments they appear on. It explored performative aspects of texts – how the layout and arrangement of texts affects how buildings are viewed and moved around. It also considered the ways in which texts institutionalise and affect communities’ memories in public spaces, by putting particular texts in particular places. The final workshop, in June 2010, focused on multi-lingual inscriptions, and considered the ways in which multi-lingual texts can be viewed rather than read: how viewers would react to those texts in scripts and languages they could not read or recognise, and also at informal texts, such as graffiti which affect the appearance and interpretation of the buildings to which they are affixed.



Monogram of empress Theodora on a column capital, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, 6th c.Iwan inscription, Sirçali Medrese, Konya, Turkey, 1242-43.  Peacock niche from main entablature of Hagios Polyeuktos with part of the poem celebrating its foundation, Constantinople, Turkey, 6th c.

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