Poetical Pictures

Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780–856).
De Laudibus sancte crucis.
Pforzheim: Thomas Anshelm, 1503. (AFS2797)

The typography and woodcut illustration of this book reproduces the appearance of a ninth-century illuminated manuscript that consisted of twenty-eight poems in praise of the Holy Cross. In the original manuscript version, the Latin texts were rendered as “carmina figurata” (shaped poetry). While the main text consisted of continuous lines of black letters in a grid, a second poem appeared in carefully selected red letters that delineated pictorial forms. These intertextual images included Christ with outstretched arms, the symbols of the four evangelists, and Rabanus Maurus kneeling before the Cross.

In the exhibited edition of 1503, the first “carmina figurata” is shown. Whereas the primary poem (“But the Offspring of the Lord”) was printed with black ink so that it fills the rectangular illustration on the left-hand page, the secondary poem, (“The right hand of the Most High has created all things”) appears in red letters that trace the outlines of the figure of Christ, beginning at the tip of his extended right hand. On the facing page, the primary text can be read again in verse form, and three pages later a reprinting of the secondary poem includes an explanation of how to follow the text as it winds around the image of Christ, ending with the Alpha and Omega in Christ’s halo.

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Illustrated Content
Poetical Pictures