My acquaintance with pseudoscripts came in the context of research on a late eleventh century reliquary, the Arca Santa. A large rectangular wooden box covered by a silver revetment, the Arca Santa is the devotional focus of an important collection of medieval relics contained in the Cámara Santa of the Cathedral of Oviedo in northern Spain.
According to legend, the Arca was assembled in Jerusalem by followers of the apostles, and it contains such relics as fragments of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, as well as the Virgin’s tunic, hair, and breast milk. A Latin inscription on the lid tells us about some of the contents, as well as about the patron of the reliquary, King Alfonso VI (r. 1077-1109).
In addition to this partially legible Latin inscription (it has been badly damaged since at least the sixteenth century, making it difficult to decipher key passages), the reliquary boasts a long inscription in what would at first appear to be Arabic on its front. Manuel Gómez Moreno, one of the founding fathers of medieval art history in Spain, claimed that the inscription consisted of “common Arabic praises,” including “the blessing of God.” Since Gómez Moreno, however, scholars have been hesitant to claim that the kufic inscription on the Arca is, in fact, legible Arabic. The inscription is most often characterized as “pseudo-kufic,” a problematic epigraphic category in which Arabic script is to be “read” purely as a decorative device, without semantic meaning. But, why should a significant portion of the decoration of this deeply meaningful holy object be meaningless?
Being a medieval art historian rather than a specialist in Arabic epigraphy, I sought a different approach to this impasse. As text, the Arabic inscription might be largely illegible, but it is far from meaningless. Writing does not need to be legible in order to transmit meaning; it can have both semantic and aesthetic meaning. The phenomenon of pseudoscript breaks down the barrier between text and image, forcing us to confront the traditional dichotomy between the two. We must ask not what does the script say, but rather, what does it do?