Written language began when, some 5000 years ago, images turned into words. The word–image borderline is less clear than we often assume, however.
Mexico, Chiapas, Palenque, Glyphs in Palace at Mayan archaeological site
UNESCO World Heritage Site, 675-683 © De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images
Mayan glyphs retained their pictorial quality through centuries of use as a phonetic script. The 8th century Book of Kells transforms the chi-rho monogram (signifying Christ) into a spectacle of spiritual superabundance.
Chi Rho monogram, from the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 1 verse 18, from the Book of Kells, c.800 (vellum), Irish School, (9th century) / © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland / Bridgeman Images
In Islamic sacred art, words are a primary motif, as in the mosaics of the Shah Mosque, Isfahan. Algerian artist Rachid Khoraichi (see main image) fashions metal sculptures from Sufi texts and Arabic poetry.
For Surrealists, words conceal meanings while dream images reveal the truth. René Magritte’s Treachery of Images leaves you uncertain whether to trust the words or the image — until you remember that images are not identical to the things they represent: this is a picture, not a pipe.
Magritte Rene, Ceci n'est pas une pipe, 1929. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, USA. Digital Image: © 2009 LACMA/Scala, Florence. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2014.
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