Back in 2012, I posted about “fake Arabic,” but that focused on the theory (so to speak); Lynne Rutter’s The Ornamentalist post Pseudo-Kufic: A Secret Ornamental Language shows you images of the thing itself, and gorgeous images they are. She writes:

A great number of paintings of the late Byzantine and Early Renaissance era used a similar design device: arabesque lettering, painted as the embroidered decoration in the hems of garments or edges of carpets. Sometimes it was copied from artifacts, and sometimes it was wholly invented. This script is referred to as Pseudo-Kufic.

Influenced by exotic artifacts brought back from the Middle East through both conflict and trade with the Ottoman Empire, Early Renaissance painters embellished their work with complicated patterns and eastern-style scripts in an effort to create an “oriental” atmosphere, especially with regard to persons or scenes from the Holy Land. Eastern Kufic script was a particularly ornamental style of calligraphy dating from the 11th century, whose design lent itself well to borders.

There’s much more at the post, which I highly recommend.


  1. Gorgeous photos.

    Strongly reminds me of mille-fleurs designs from a little later — for example La Dame à la licorne — that’s illustrating a purely French/European narrative.

    Tapestriers (?) can’t bear to see a big expanse of plain colour, it seems.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    In olden times tapisser or tapicer, according to the OED. From tapis, natch.

  3. It’s a plot point in The Eyes of the Killer Robot (probably the last novel by Jon Bellairs worth reading, after the plots had become extremely formulaic) that none of the characters recognize the the Arabic calligraphy on the blade of the Sword of Righteousness as anything other than decoration.

  4. @LH, thank you! I did not know.

    I am a bit perplexed,because their examples do not look like Kufic.

    “rich, oriental fabric” a funny comma. All their examples are clothing.
    Did not they import damask fabric from the ME?
    Did they (fabrics) contain writing?

  5. What would one call that scribble in the Gérôme painting reproduced on the cover of Said’s Orientalism? And I wonder what someone who can actually read Arabic properly would make of it?

  6. David Marjanović says

    I am a bit perplexed,because their examples do not look like Kufic.

    But there’s a link to the Wikipedia article on Mongolian elements in European art of the period, and that includes imitations of ‘Phags-pa script (that got mixed up with imitations of Kufic).

  7. Stu Clayton says

    “rich, oriental fabric” a funny comma.

    Not at all. Its purpose is to prevent “rich” from appearing to modify “oriental”. Otherwise someone with a schoolboy’s sense of humor could speciously claim it means “fabric worn by rich orientals”.

    With the comma, it’s clear that “rich” modifies “fabric”, and “oriental” modifies “fabric”.

  8. Eh, that’s a pretty unlikely misreading. I’d say it works with or without the comma.

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