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Checkmate! Medieval People at Play


Visual and Intellectual Games

Rationarum Evangelistarum

Learning can be fun, or so we are often told. During the Middle Ages, even the most serious subject could be turned into something of a game. Often visual riddles and word play were used as tools to help one contemplate greater truths or to aid the memory. Mnemonic devices, images and texts that help one remember something, were especially popular during the later medieval period. These could be used for secular purposes, such as teaching children the alphabet, or for religious enlightenment—for instance, helping the faithful memorize important prayers and biblical texts. Other types of imagery that had to be deciphered were used purely for entertainment, such as illustrated proverbs that were meant to guide you to recognize the saying they depicted. The works shown here demonstrate the wide range of textual and visual codes created by, and for, the medieval mind.

(image: 92.394, Rationarum Evangelistarum)

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Rebus of a Prayer
Rebus of a Prayer Title
French (Paris), 1524 Period
92.82, fol. N, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
The last page of this Book of Hours holds a rebus, a riddle created from images. In this case, it was meant to help one memorize a prayer to the Virgin Mary. The reader pieced together the intended text from the sound of the words represented by the image, although here the text is given as well. Word and image play together, for instance when the French word “de” (of) is intended, a picture of dice, “dé,” is shown. About
Gospel Book Fragment with the Opening to the Gospel of Saint John
“In principio” Title
German (Corvey), ca. 950–75 Period
W.751, fols. 3v–4r, museum purchase, 1952 Accession
During the early medieval period, artists created sophisticated interplays between word and image. Often, the opening words of each Gospel would be intricately decorated, with the ornament and letters intertwined. Although the medieval viewer would know what it should say and had no need to read it, deciphering the page, and thereby focusing attention on the sacred word of God, became an act of spiritual contemplation. Can you make out the words “in principio” (“in the beginning”) on this page? About
Pictorial Alphabet
Pictorial Alphabet Title
Italian (Venice), 1485 Period
91.1015, fols. H4v–H5r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
Versions of the imagery displayed here can be found in nurseries and schoolrooms today. Here, each letter of the alphabet has been associated with something that is the same shape. For example, the artist has cleverly recognized that A looks like a folding ladder, B like a mandolin, and so forth. While the images chosen may seem a bit strange to us, the idea is the same as their modern counterparts: they work as mnemonic devices, or memory aids. About
Evangelist Luke
Evangelist Luke Title
German (Pforzheim), 1502 Period
92.394, fol. Cii, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
This cryptic image may appear bizarre, but it was an effective mnemonic, or memory, device. Intended to help one remember the Gospel of Luke, his symbol, the ox, presents imagery representing key moments in each chapter. This complex image can be decoded using the facing text, for each number has a textual counterpart that provides clues. For instance, the “11” in the image labels a devil, meant to help the reader remember Christ casting out devils in that chapter. About
Inhabited Initial
Inhabited Initial Title
Southern French (or northern Spanish?), ca. 1100 Period
W.17, fols. 8v–9r, acquired by Henry Walters, between 1895 and 1931 Accession
Enlarged initials filled with humans or animals are known as “inhabited initials,” and they tend to be playful rather than illustrations of the text. On this page, two armored soldiers scale the initial L at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. One hoists the other up on his shoulders, perhaps offering his companion a better view of the angel on the opposite page. While fun, these types of images were also useful, since they visually marked sections of text. About
Proverbs in Rhyme
“To agree like cat and dog” Title
French (Savoy), ca. 1485–90 Period
W.313, fol. 29v–30r, acquired by Henry Walters, ca. 1906 Accession
When people can never agree, you might say that they “fight like cats and dogs.” This, and many other sayings, or proverbs, are medieval in origin, and guessing proverbs from illustrated versions of them was a popular form of entertainment. Since proverbs were often based on analogies or even nonsense, they provided the artist with a chance to create clever and humorous scenes, like the cartoonish cat and dog snarling at each other here. About