October 10, 2005

De Bry’s Alphabets

Among the few dozen books I was recently reunited with after having left them in storage when I left the UK in ’00 was one entitled The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. As a history, it is only intermittently interesting, but its many illustrations are often beautiful and fascinating. It was in this book that I first learned of Johann Theodor de Bry’s 1595 Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet. I subsequently discovered that de Bry’s engraved alphabet had been reprinted in one of a series of volumes by the alphabetologists Joseph Kiermeier-Debre and Fritz Franz Vogel (whose book Menschenalphabete I could have used when compiling my entry about figurative alphabets.) I ordered a copy of this reprint, published by Ravensburger in 1997: the present images are all scanned from its pages.

Engraved letter 'A' by Johann Theodor de Bry from the 'Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet' (1595).


Engraved letter 'B' by Johann Theodor de Bry from the 'Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet' (1595).

In the Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet there are twenty-four engravings of decorated letters. Most of them relate to biblical personages: ‘A,’ for example, is for Adam (who is accompanied—see the first image above— by Eve, and, aptly, given the triangular shape of his initial, by his first wife, Lilith). While it follows that ‘C’ is for Cain, ‘B’ (immediately above) is made (presumably for the sake of narrative neatness), to represent Abel. ‘H’ (below) is personified by Holofernes, whose martial, greedy and lustful nature is suggested by the armour & weapons, the pelican, and the decidedly phallic arrangements of fruit & vegetables respectively. Holofernes shows his face again in the ‘I’ engraving, (the 2nd image, below), whose subject is Iuditha (Judith).

Engraved letter 'H' by Johann Theodor de Bry from the 'Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet' (1595).


Engraved letter 'I' by Johann Theodor de Bry from the 'Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet' (1595).

The ‘X’ engraving, below, represents Christ (‘Xhristus:’—see the fifth comment below), whereas that for ‘Y’ is one of a few in the series which do not represent a specific person, but which is instead more generally emblematic, in this case apparently portraying a parting of the ways between virtue and vice. As with the other letters, it is festooned with decorative and symbolic elements in the form of birds & beasts, fruit & flowers, weapons & armour, musical instruments, and the ubiquitous putti.

Engraved letter 'X' by Johann Theodor de Bry from the 'Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet' (1595).


Engraved letter 'Y' by Johann Theodor de Bry from the 'Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet' (1595).

Theodor de Bry (1528-98, Johann’s father) had been a goldsmith in Liège who found himself obliged, as a Protestant, to leave that Catholic city in 1570. After living in Strasbourg for several years, he relocated again, to Frankfurt, in 1588, where he established himself as a book-seller and publisher, many of his volumes being illustrated with engravings by his own hand. He was aided in this enterprise by his sons Johann Theodor (1561-1623) and Johann Israël (ca. 1570-1611). The de Bry firm issued almost two hundred books, including a renowned series of illustrated accounts of the Americas, emblem-books, and the mystical & alchemical works of Robert Fludd and Michael Maier.

Chaldean alphabet from Johann Theodor and Johann Israel de Bry's 1596 'Alphabeta et Characteres.'


'Egyptian' alphabet from Johann Theodor and Johann Israel de Bry's 1596 'Alphabeta et Characteres.'

The year after the publication of the Neiw Kunstliches Alphabet, another alphabetical work was issued by the de Bry presses, this time a joint venture of Johann Theodor and Johann Israël, which claimed to present all of the world’s known alphabets. Its global ambitions notwithstanding, their book Alphabeta et Characteres… was (not surprisingly) focussed for the most part on Europe and the Near East…

Illyrian alphabet from Johann Theodor and Johann Israel de Bry's 1596 'Alphabeta et Characteres.'


Roman alphabet from Johann Theodor and Johann Israel de Bry's 1596 'Alphabeta et Characteres.'

Click on the images above to see them enlarged…

Posted by misteraitch at October 10, 2005 12:23 PM

That's excellent thanks. I had no idea alphabetology was a such a speciality field, nor that it was so jam packed with symbology. I'd actually read the Giornale entry you linked here, the other day. Fascinating stuff.

Posted by: peacay on October 10, 2005 05:08 PM

Actually, I made the ‘alphabetologist’ part up: it’s just that this pair have written half a dozen alphabet-related books, which is enough to qualify them as honorary alphabetologists in my eyes.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 10, 2005 06:55 PM

These are interesting; I can't fathom the "Y," and it tells me how profoundly ignorant I am of a plethora of interesting things. Isn't it possible that you have a reference to St. Sebastian on the upright of the "Y"? It certainly suggests his identity as captain and as patron saint of soldiers and, of course, archers. The torso has that same little "twist" that one sees in many paintings of him, bound to a post or pillar. (Or perhaps the gear is a reference to the "whole armor of God" on Y, letter of Yahweh. Though I don't guess so.) Ichthus? Fishing seems clear enough, though again it also suggests the zodiac, just as the fruits and flowers suggest a seasonal round. The little puttinski is "fishing for men," I suppose. The lobster makes me think of Renaissance references to "Cancer." Parrots are in Durer and elsewhere, but I'm clueless about meaning. Is the iconography linked to the letter? In the way that some alphabets are connected to their decorations via the first letter of names in Hebrew?

What is really interesting to reflect on is how rich and complex in symbols these are--and how deficient in the same our own times appear in contrast.

Posted by: marly on October 11, 2005 02:24 AM

Marly—I neglected to mention that, for each of the letters in this book there are accompanying verses in Latin and German. Here’s the Latin verse for the letter Y: if you can read Latin (I only know enough to be able to pick out the odd word) it might cast some light on the image. Kiermeier-Debre & Vogel’s commentary on this engraving just says that “Græco-Pythagorean tradition saw the letter ‘ypsilon’ as the parting of the ways between vice and virtue, for which reason it was also called the ‘Litera Pythagoræ’ and regarded as the philosophical character par excellence.” They also concede that the letter could represent coupling just as well as parting. Alas, they don’t elaborate on the significance of the pictorial elements.

You might be right about the significance of the armour. The parrot certainly carries some iconographical baggage, being one of the birds included in mediæval bestiaries, etc., but I don’t know what meaning, if any, it is supposed to supply here.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 11, 2005 10:32 AM

Loxias kindly e-mailed me to explain that “X would stand for ‘Xristos’ or ‘Khristos’ (should we like to transcribe the first letter), but definitely not ‘Xhristos’”—as I had at first written it above. When I checked the book, I saw that it had originally been printed as ‘XHRISTVS’ in the title but ‘XRISTE’ in the body of the accompanying Latin verse. I changed the spelling above to match the title as given by De Bry, incorrect or obsolete as that may be.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 11, 2005 06:40 PM

Ah, well, graece est, non legitur, anyway.


Posted by: Loxias on October 11, 2005 07:24 PM

Mr. H- thank you for all the fascinating entries in your blog- I look forward to every one!
Just my two cents worth:
My recollection from medieval art history professor
was that the parrot supposedly squawked "ave Maria" untrained and was therefore associated with images of Madonnas.
Not sure if that has any association with the images you have posted though...

Posted by: BookRtz on October 11, 2005 10:36 PM

Hypsilon (Y), next to its 'parting between virtue and vice' significance, looks like a three-way crossroads, the domain of the godess Hecate, hence laden with 'mystical significance'.

Btw, does anyone know whether there is any research on the function and significance of the ubiquitous putti from Michelangelo onwards?

Posted by: Loxias on October 12, 2005 08:44 AM

Loxias—with regard to putti, a quick look around turned up this title, which looks pretty interesting…

Posted by: misteraitch on October 12, 2005 12:58 PM

I like the squawky, devout parrot and the uncanny crossroads. As for naked ones, surely some of these must be angelic cherubs (Christian cherubim) rather than true putti (Greek/Roman assistant-to-Eros seducers.)

Little Latin, alas.

Pax tecum!

Posted by: marly on October 13, 2005 12:43 AM

Caro misteraitch,
e' da diversi mesi che visito il tuo splendido sitoweb. Sono molto interessato dai tuoi lavori di ricerca di arte, grafica, incisioni, miniature. etc.
Mi piace ringraziarti per quello che fai, perche' in questo modo metti a disposizione dei tuoi lettori immagini e suggestioni di forte impatto emotivo ed estetico.
Grazie, misteraitch. Volevo da tempo lasciarti questo messaggio. Ora e' arrivato il momento di farlo.
Tanti auguri per il prosieguo dell'attivita'.

Posted by: Paesanino on October 15, 2005 11:56 AM

A truely wonderful website. It is what the web was meant for, the exchange of ideas. Bravo!

I could see the alphabetical buildings coming to fruition, perhaps a ghetto of the idle rich who like to bask in caligraphic comfort. Stroll in antique gardens and stop to rest on cushy commas.

Posted by: whalej on November 4, 2005 09:40 PM

Since writing this I happened to read the following passages on the significance of the letter ‘Y’ in Sir Thomas Browne’s book Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

The heart of a wise man is in the right side, but that of a fool in the left; for thereby may be implied, that the heart of a wise man delighteth in the right way, or in the path of vertue, that of a fool in the left, or road of vice; according to the mystery of the letter of Pythagoras…
We should be too criticall to question the letter Y, or bicornous element of Pythagoras, that is, the making of the hornes equall: or the left lesse then the right, and so destroying the symbolicall intent of the figure; confounding the narrow line of vertue, with the larger roade of vice; answerable unto the narrow door of heaven, and the ample gates of hell, expressed by our Saviour, and not forgotten by Homer, in that Epithete of Pluto’s house.

Posted by: misteraitch on November 18, 2005 01:41 PM

As a mixed media artist, I would be extremely interested in the Baroque and Rococo Pictorial Imagery: The 1758-1760 Hertel Edition of Ripa’s Iconologia, published by Dover Books. Should you choose to bestow me with this wonderful book I would be more than happy to create a piece for you from its imagery as a token of my appreciation! Thanks so much!
a.k.a. Adrianna D'Este

Posted by: Dawn Beckert on December 6, 2005 10:11 PM

hey! i love this stuff it's soo cool!!

Posted by: dj on July 15, 2007 01:22 AM
Comments are now closed