Workshop: The Iconicity of Script in Manuscripts from  Asia, Africa, America and Europe (Hamburg, 31 October – 1 November 2014)

The Iconicity of Script in Manuscripts from  Asia, Africa, America and Europe
Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg
31 October -1 November 2014

Scripts and writing systems are more than neutral transmitters of the words that are encoded by them. When words that were previously spoken and transmitted orally are written down, they gain a new, visual and material dimension. The iconic component with which the script can be endowed in this process has a hermeneutic, as well as an aesthetic, potential. Recognising and decoding it is as much part of the process of reading as is the deciphering of the written text. In manuscript cultures all over the world, script is adorned with or transformed by ornamental and figurative elements. The aim of this workshop is to explore how the visual and iconic potential of script has been used in manuscript cultures in Asia, Africa, America, and Europe. Its approach is a comparative one, exploring similarities as well as differences and the possible reasons behind them.

Relevant phenomena include:

The semantic potential of particular styles of scripts and of writing systems.
In many manuscript cultures, scribes and illuminators have a range of different writing styles, and sometimes even different writing systems, at their disposal. These can be used, separately or in combination, for various different purposes. As complex visual patterns, they can encourage or control the way in which a text is read and interpreted. Often, sacred or revered texts are written in a particularly elaborate script, hereby both emphasizing and affirming their outstanding dignity and authority. In other cases, calligraphy can be part of an artistic, philosophical or political statement. On a more (but by no means exclusively) pragmatic level, different scripts can be used to indicate hierarchical relationships between different texts (e.g. a treatise and its commentary) or the structure of a text (e.g. by highlighting chapter breaks) within a manuscript. In some cases, which would be of particular interest to our workshop, calligraphic shapes, techniques and practices are subject to intercultural transfers, by means of quotation, adaptation or assimilation.

Script constituting figures and images
Calligrams, carmina figurate, text ‘labyrinths’ and other instances in which script is arranged in figural shapes, or in which such figures are revealed to the reader in the process of reading a text, are found in many manuscript cultures, and in many different variations. Some of these variations may be due to different writing systems that are current in different manuscript cultures; others, to varying notions of the status of script, of writing and reading within a culture. In some, e.g. Islamic and Jewish cultures that restrict the use of images, script can perform some functions that pictures do in others, perhaps taking on some of the aesthetic and even figurative characteristics that are elsewhere attributed mainly to images.

Figures and bodies constituting script
While figurative forms can be constituted by script, script in turn can also be formed by figurative elements. For instance, so-called anthropomorphic and zoomorphic initials in European manuscripts consist of the painted or drawn bodies of humans and animals, and in Arabic calligraphy, script can bloom and sprout leaves. In other cases, script in a manuscript can be written or painted in a way that conjures up a specific material, such as textile or stone.

Diagrams and schemata consisting of or incorporating script
A different kind of iconicity lies at the heart of diagrams and schemata. Here, too, the written and the figural form an inextricable whole. Their overall visual structure, however, serves first and foremost as a matrix which represents not things or concepts themselves, but relationships of concepts and/or things to one another, making diagrams and schemata unique instruments for transmitting and even generating knowledge.

Hanna Wimmer, Rostislav Tumanov and Lena Sommer

For the full workshop programme, and to register, see here:

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