Thoughts on Pseudoscript • Flora Ward

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.

Arca Santa

Arca Santa, Cathedral of Oveido, 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).

The lid of the Arca Santa.

The lid of the Arca Santa, with Latin inscription.

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.”[1] 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?

Arca Santa, Pseudo-kufic inscription.

Arca Santa, Pseudo-kufic inscription.

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?

The notion of script as an active agent in the function and meaning of an object, rather than a passive description or caption, is key for understanding the role of pseudoscript in works of medieval art. In the case of the Arca Santa, the kufic inscription is analogous to the Latin inscription on the reliquary’s lid in both location and function. The Arabic script makes an implicit reference to the origins and journey of the Arca from the Holy Land through North Africa and southern Spain. The inscriptions thus authenticate the reliquary’s origin story, acting as visual proof and standing in as a sort of epigraphic shorthand for the complete account of its initial creation and journey across the Holy Land, North Africa, and Iberian peninsula before arriving in Oviedo.

I have hesitated here even to use the term pseudo-Arabic to characterize the inscription on the Arca Santa. This is not only because of my lack of epigraphic expertise, but also because, when we consider the Arca Santa in the context of what little we know about the production of inscribed metalwork in Islamic Spain during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the inscription is not so anomalous. According to Sheila Blair, silver caskets were “usually inscribed with blessings to an unspecified owner,” as we see on the Arca.[2] The presence of the kufic inscription in this case does not seem to carry with it a particular valence of cultural appropriation, but rather speaks to the origins of the Arca in the distant past and in the East—the two often understood as being one and the same, as history was mapped onto physical geography.

It would, therefore, be a mistake to read the Arabic inscription of the Arca Santa as purely “decorative” and illegible, although its words may be stylized or abbreviated. After all, as Richard Ettinghausen and Sheila Blair have pointed out, illegible, marginally legible, and abbreviated pseudo-inscriptions were popular within Islamic lands, appearing in textiles, ceramics, ivory, and metalwork.[3] Abstraction, abbreviation, and relative illegibility are not, then, to be understood purely as responses of Christian medieval culture looking at and attempting to adapt or appropriate the visual culture of Islam.

In Oviedo, both the Latin and Arabic inscriptions work together to authenticate the origin story of the reliquary. But we must not try to impose a single interpretation on the varied phenomenon of pseudoscript, which appears in a range of different contexts throughout the Middle Ages. The illegibility and indeterminacy of pseudo-inscriptions must be taken seriously and not dismissed as “mere ornament” or exoticized as a foreign intrusion. We must instead see pseudoscript as a phenomenon integral to medieval visual and textual culture.

Pseudoscript bibliography

Aanavi, Don. “Devotional Writing: ‘Pseudoinscriptions’ in Islamic Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 26, no. 9 (1968): 353-358.

Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Inscriptions. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Cahn, Walter. The Romanesque Wooden Doors of Auvergne. New York: New York University Press, 1974.

Ettinghausen, Richard. “Kufesque in Byzantine Greece, the Latin West and the Muslim World.” In A Colloquium in Memory of George Carpenter Miles (1904-1975), 28-45. New York: The American Numismatic Society, 1976.

Nagel, Alexander. “Twenty-five Notes on Pseudoscript in Italian Art.” Res 59/60 (2011): 229-48.

Walker, Alicia. “Meaningful Mingling: Classicizing Imagery and Islamicizing Script in a Byzantine Bowl.” The Art Bulletin 90, no. 1 (2008): 32-53.

Watson, Katherine. “The Kufic Inscription in the Romanesque Cloister of Moissac in Quercy: Links with Le Puy, Toledo and Catalan Woodworkers.” Arte medievale series 3, 1 (1989): 7-27.

Flora Ward completed her PhD on the Cámara Santa of the Cathedral of Oviedo at the University of Toronto (2014). She works on Spanish art and history, particularly the use of medieval art in the modern era.

[1] Gómez Moreno, El arte románico español, 30.

[2] Blair, Islamic Inscriptions, 118.

[3] Ettinghausen, “Kufesque in Byzantine Greece;” Blair, Islamic Inscriptions, 166-67.


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