Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jibberish Scripts (Hebrew? Greek?)

A holy child writes in a book in this detail from Bernhard Strigel's Saint Mary Salome and Her Family in the National Gallery of Art (click image to enlarge). I was intrigued by the appearance of the writing in this book, which looks to me like jibberish script. At first I thought these letter-forms were approximating Hebrew, but if that's so then the writing is going in the wrong direction (i.e., the pen is moving left to right, as one does when writing Latin and other languages; Hebrew should go from right to left).

When I took another look at the entire painting online (see image and description here), I realized this child actually identified as SANCTV. IOHANES EWAN. (Saint John the Evangelist) - and his Gospel was actually written in Greek. But the writing doesn't look very much like Greek either.

I guess it doesn't really matter whether the writing is "supposed" to be Greek or Hebrew. It looks like the artist was much more interested in representing the "idea" of a holy writer rather than conveying the accuracy of any particular script. (For another creative use of script in a religious painting, see this earlier posting about upside-down Latin.)

I'm sure I could find other examples of jibberish script throughout the NGA if I really looked around, but here's a similar example from a painting I saw in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo during a visit to Siena:
I don't remember who this figure is or even the name of the artist, but it's another intriguing example of visually stylized script that lends an aura of authority. Whether it's meant to represent Hebrew or Greek, the symbols here look to me a lot like a older form of Arabic numerals.

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