Thursday, September 08, 2005


Phagspa Script from
This is the script invented for Khubilai Khan in 1269 and used by the Mongol Empire for 100 years.

This reflects the bureaucratic nature of the script.

"In 1278, Khubilai decreed that Pags-pa should replace Uighur on the metal tablets that served as passports in the Mongol empire, identifying officially authorized travelers and mandating their safe passage and supply. Pags-pa was sometimes used in the official seals stamped on paper money, which circulated throughout the empire. Europeans regarded both the passports and the money as exotic curiosities. Pags-pa is written vertically, and is now often called "square" or "quadratic" script after the shape of its letters."

This paragraph refers to the use of the script in an artistic cross-cultural and religious context.

"In a 1306 illustration of the Robe of Christ in Padua, the robe not only was made in the style and fabric of the Mongols, but the golden trim was painted in Mongol letters from the square Phagspa script commissioned by Khubilai Khan. ... Old Testament prophets were depicted holding scrolls open to long, but undecipherable, texts in Mongol script. The direct allusion to the writing and clothing from the court of Khubilai Khan showed an undeniable connection between Italian Renaissance art and the Mongol Empire." Genghis Khan. Jack Weatherford.

Andrew West's Babelstone gives the purpose of the script in its original context. There are many authentic examples of Phagspa at this site and a detailed list of documents and historical references.

Addendum: Bibliographic reference from Weatherford's book.

Tanaka, Hedemichi, "Giotto and the influence of the Mongols and Chinese on his Art: A new analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the fresco paintings of the Scrovegni Chapel " Art History (Tohuko University) vol.6 (1984)

Tanaka, Hedemichi, "Oriental Scripts in the Paintings of Giotto's period." Gazette des Beaux-arts Vol. 113 (January - June 1989)

Other Links:

The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Artistic Exchange: Europe and the Islamic World at the National Gallery of Art, Washington

I looked at the frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel online but the definition is not clear enough to see the detail. Any more information on this would be welcome.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In a 1306 illustration of the Robe of Christ in Padua, the robe not only was made in the style and fabric of the Mongols, but the golden trim was painted in Mongol letters from the square Phagspa script commissioned by Khubilai Khan"

This is really interesting, and the first I've heard of it. I just tried searching the internet for a picture, but couldn't find anything (there is a 1306 fresco of the Last Judgement by Giotto in Padua, but I can't see anything Mongolian in it). Do you know exactly what the 1306 illustration referred to is?

5:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the references. It would be amazing if the Phags-pa script was depicted in a 14th century Italian painting, but not completely improbable. I was in Quanzhou (Marco Polo's Zayton) earlier this year, and the Quanzhou Maritime Museum has the most amazing collection of gravestones and architectural artefects dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, when Zayton must have been the one of the most cosmopolitan cites in the world. In addition to a complete Hindu temple, a Tamil inscription dated 1281, and hundreds of gravestones inscribed in Arabic, Syriac and Uighur, there are a number of Christian tomb stones. The most important of them, in Latin script, was that of the 3rd bishop of Zayton, the Italian Andrew Perugia (Andreas Perusinus), dated 1332. However the gravestones for ordinary Christian Chinese had inscriptions written in Chinese using the Phags-pa script. These stones are a rare example of Phags-pa being used for private use rather than offical purposes, and I don't know of any non-Christian tomb stones or memorial stones that are written using the Phags-pa script. The fact that Chinese Christians in Zayton used the Phags-pa script, and that a bishop of Zayton was Italian does suggest that knowledge of this script could have found its way to Italy.

Having said that, I'm still dubious about the authenticity of the claim that these frescoes show Phags-pa writing. From what the National gallery of Art says, these are barely visible "pseudo-inscriptions" that "blend letter shapes derived from Arabic and the Mongol Pags-Pa script". It sounds like the sort of pseudo-Chinese that you sometimes see on cheap imitation Chinese vases. It may have been quite tempting for a Japanese scholar with a fertile imagination to imagine that the pseudo-writing in these paintings was based on a real script (Phags-pa) when they may just be random brush strokes intended to give the impression of an exotoic script. Like you, I look forward to seeing some high resolution images of the paintings.

2:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does certainly sound more like a pattern than the actual script. I suppose the interest is simply in finding recognizable patterns from the east (Arabic or Mongol) incorporated into Italian religous art of the era.

Many thanks for your story about the gravestones in Quangzhou. If I ever go back to China I would like to see that.

I was talking about these scripts in China with my mother-in-law who told me this story. She was visiting a teacher who had taught in the Chefoo Mission School and asked if he knew anything about the Shian tablet (Xi'an Stele) and he took a book off his bookshelf - an original copy of Athanasius Kircher's Monuments of China, 1667. She then had it restored for him by the Royal Ontario Museum and they supplied her and the University of Toronto with a photocopy of the entire book, taken in the process of rebinding it.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Web Gallery of Art has the best on-line images of Giotto's paintings. One detail of the Birth of Christ does clearly show a script-like motif on Mary's robe. Some of the "letters" could be construed as being Phags-pa (there is something which looks remarkably like Phags-pa letter YA). However, not only do the "letters" not follow a vertical flow along a stemline as is the case with both Uighur-Mongolian and Phags-pa, but they appear to have no fixed orientation, with "letters" jumbled horizontally and vertically into square packets. My impression is that the decorative motif shown here is a simulacrum of oriental writing, and that any resemblence of "letters" in the pattern to individual Phags-pa letters is probably coincidental.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The pattern doesn't look specific to me either. However, Weatherford mentions Rabban Bar Sawma's trip to Rome in 1287 so it seems that Phagspa and other Eastern writing systems would not be completely unknown in Italy at that time.

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Suzanne!

A lover of Giotto and Asian scripts, I've tried to trace all the literature I could on this subject, but all I could come up with are these publications by Hidemichi Tanaka:

Ex Orientes Lux [in Japanese] (Tokyo 1986).

Fourteenth Century Sienese Painting and Mongolian and Chinese Influences: The Analysis of Simone Martini's Works and Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Major Works. Art History (Tohoku University, Japan) no. 7 (1984), pp. 1-57 (in English).

Giotto and the Influences of the Mongols and Chinese on His Art: A New Analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the Fresco Paintings of the Scrovegni Chapel. Published in Art History (Tohoku University, Japan) (1984) 1-38 (in English).

Giotto e la pittura cinese. L'Arte del Rinascimento e la Sua Universalità (Tokyo 1982) 265-317 (in Italian).

Le Grafie orientali nella pittura italiana de due e trecento (in Japanese, with Italian summary). Studi Italici 37 (1987) 119-125.

Oriental Scripts in the Paintings of Giotto's Period. Gazette des Beaux-Arts series 6, vol. 113 (1989). 'Phags-pa script in Italian paintings. Ilkhanids as conduit of Asian influence on European art. There is another article by this author on the same subject written in Italian.

The Mongolian Script in Giotto's Paintings. Acts of the XXVth Congress of History of Art (Vienna 1983) 167-172.

As the obvious place to look for the examples that might have inspired the painter, one really ought to see the studies of the Ilkhan rulers' letters to Europeans. Have a look at this one:

MOSTAERT, A. & F.W. Cleaves, Trois documents mongols des archives secrètes vaticanes. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 15 (1952), pp. 419-506 (you can download it if your institution is subscribed to JSTOR).

'Phags-pa and Mongolian script examples were available in Europe already in the last decades of the 13th century for Giotto to make use of. Whether he copied accurately or not is another story (I think whenever a script is copied by someone who doesn't know how it works, it's bound not to work on those who _do_ know it...)

To put it another way, I don't think that it is in doubt that Giotto _meant_ to portray those foreign scripts.


9:04 AM  
Blogger Maite said...

I don't know if you have already read the book by Lauren Arnold: "Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures" (ARNOLD, Lauren: Princely Gifts and Papal treasures. The Franciscan Mission to China and its influence on the Art of the West 1250 – 1350, Desiderata Press, San Francisco 1999). It speaks about phags-pa script on Italian paintings, and many more interesting topics about cross cultural currents in this period, very good images are also included. Best regards,

Maite Gonzalez

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I haven't read it. Thanks for a great recommendation!

12:06 PM  

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