Talking heads: the visual rhetoric of recurring scholar woodcuts in a sixteenth-century handbook on chiromancy

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This article studies a set of rather enigmatic small woodcuts depicting scholars in 'Chyromantia Ioannis Indagine', a handbook on chiromancy, physiognomy and astrology published in Dutch by the Utrecht-based printer Jan Berntsz in 1536. In contrast to the illustrations of hands and face types that Berntsz copied after the Latin editio princeps of 1522, the scholar figures’ functions and their relations to the text are not evident. Why did Berntsz add them, and how did they affect the reading experience? I argue that new insights can be gained if we approach such ‘stock images’ from the perspective of information design and multimodality.
The case study of the 'Chyromantia' exemplifies how even illustrations that are not required for understanding the text, contribute to the book’s visual rhetoric. The scholar figures invoke trust and active engagement with the knowledge presented in the book. This rhetoric is also reflected in other books from the Low Countries in which the scholar images are used in similar ways.
I also demonstrate how the scholars’ mise-en-page crucially shapes their meanings. To understand the effects of the page layout, I apply the concepts of text-flow and page-flow, introduced in 2008 by applied linguist John A. Bateman. Although text-flow may be regarded as the dominant mode in the 'Chyromantia', an element of page-flow is at work as well. It is realized through the combination of the scholars’ orientation towards the text, their gestures of conversation, their arrangement on the page, and their recurrence across pages. Together, these spatial characteristics endow them with layers of meaning which are not achieved by the text or by a single scholar image alone.
The concepts of text-flow and page-flow turn out to be useful analytical tools for understanding the dynamics of the early modern page. I propose, however, to conceive them not as strictly distinct modes, but rather as a continuum that might be extended to include ‘document-flow’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-29
Number of pages19
JournalJaarboek voor Nederlandse boekgeschiedenis
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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