The Puzzly Art of Carmina Figurata

We don’t discuss poetry all that often in the blog. To be fair, when it comes to poetry and crosswords, all you really need to know are E’ER, O’ER, ODE, E’EN, and ‘NEATH.

But there is one form of poetry that lends itself quite handily to our favorite field of study, sitting at the crossroads of art, poetry, and puzzles. Today, we’re going to talk about carmina figurata.

[A poem shaped like an altar, a work by Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius.
Image courtesy of Some Grey Matter.]

A carmina figuratum is a poem wherein either the entire body of the poem or select parts form a shape or pattern. Often this shape reflects the subject of the poem.

But that’s what the term has come to mean over time, as poetry has evolved and grown. The original carmina figurata were religious-based poems where letters were colored red to stand out from the regular black lettering in order to draw attention to or highlight a certain religious figure.

[“De laudibus sanctae Crucis” by Oliverus.
Image courtesy of WTF Art History.]

For instance, in this image, titled “Praises to the Holy Cross,” you can see “rex,” meaning “king” in red above Christ’s head and “virtu” on his stomach, among other words. Obviously, having the image superimposed over the text helps highlight the words, representing John 1:14, ““And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.”

Quite a bit to unpack in such a small piece.

Other carmina figurata have no color or imagery, relying on the cleverness of the reader to uncover the hidden messages within the text. This was particularly true of the poet Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius, who wrote dozens of carmina figurata of increasing complexity.

Some of these hidden messages honored the same rulers the poems were meant to impress. Other messages referenced the date the poem was written or the poet himself. Some even concealed drawings or designs.

[Several of Porphyrius’s most ambitious creations, revealing just how far a reader would have to delve to uncover the hidden messages. Images courtesy of Some Grey Matter.]

From the article on Some Grey Matter:

The poems contain supplementary text ‘hidden’ within the main body of the individual poems and intended to be ‘discovered’ by the reader. These versus intexti poems were apparently intended to dazzle Constantine with their technical virtuosity and thereby inspire the hoped–for recall of their creator…

Now that’s ambition. Imagine you’re constructing a Marching Bands puzzle, with the overlapping lines and loops of text, but all in the hope of courting favor with a major political player. And to do so, you need to hide even more information in the grid. That’s next-level puzzling, to be sure.

Whether you’re moved by the artistry, impressed by the construction, or intrigued by the puzzly challenges they represent, you must admit: carmina figurata are works of puzzle art unlike anything else.


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Puzzles Come to Life!

A few years ago, I wrote about the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle, a 5 feet by 19 feet, 33,000-piece monster called “Wildlife,” which took a young puzzle enthusiast 450 hours to complete.

That was a cool story in and of itself, but as it turns out, some other puzzlers have gone one step further, using the Wildlife jigsaw puzzle as their canvas for a stop-motion animation video.

This YouTuber, who goes by the name of Sky!, transformed the Wildlife puzzle into games of Tetris, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Mario Brothers, using completed sections of the puzzle as their gameplay elements.

It’s absolutely mind-blowing. Check it out:

Apparently, it took Sky! and a cohort over 400 hours to solve the puzzle and another 400 hours to animate the video. That is some serious dedication.

But that video got me thinking about other ways creative folks have used puzzly elements to tell stories.

And I was reminded of a video that’s been making the rounds on social media lately. It employs one of my favorite puzzle devices — a Rube Goldberg machine — to tell a story of three brothers who face danger and live to tell the tale. (They do use a bit of stop-motion animation at the start, but afterward, it’s all real-time motion.)

This is the story of a ball named Biisuke. Enjoy!

It’s adorable and even has a song! How could you not love that?

It just goes to show you there’s no end to the puzzly stories you can tell with a little creativity.


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Doing Crosswords at Home: The Artistic Way

A few years ago, I wrote about one of the biggest crossword puzzles in the world: the 100-foot-tall Lviv, Ukraine, crossword painted on the side of a building.

But as it turns out, this isn’t the only supersized crossword to grace the side of a building in Europe. In a book about German street art, I saw a picture of a house with a facade painted to resemble a crossword puzzle.

Doing a bit more research, I discovered that the house was located in Dusseldorf, Germany, on a street called Kiefernstrasse, which is one of the world’s largest graffiti walls. Residents use the walls of their homes and neighboring buildings to make artistic and political statements.

[Image courtesy of CherylTiu.com.]

It’s a vibrant, fascinating part of the city — one where personal expression trumps traditional aesthetics. Be warned, though: Travel and lifestyle blogger Cheryl Tiu advises tourists to visit only in the daylight hours, and in the company of others. In the 1980s, Kiefernstrasse was home to gangs, political dissidents, and squatters, and it retains some of that anarchic spirit to this day.

[As a Tsuro fan, I appreciate this work in particular, one of hundreds of works in an overlapping, constantly changing canvas. Image courtesy of CherylTiu.com.]

But the crossword house, located at #31, is what brings us to Kiefernstrasse today.

[Image courtesy of Daily Dose of German.]

The artists (and residents) of #31 view the house as a microcosm of the world; all of the overlapping, interconnected entries — many of which are political — representing the complexity of our world.

It’s kind of interesting that such a layered statement literally appears in black and white. It feels quite apropos, though, since crosswords are both a cultural barometer — updating and evolving with the times — and a cultural artifact from another time, building upon the knowledge of the past.

As of writing this blog post, it’s unclear whether the piece is actually finished, since the artists said that the final words and clues for the grid were going to be painted on a gate or fence nearby.

Nonetheless, they’ve created a striking and intriguing work of art, one that says as much about crosswords as it does about the world.


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PuzzleNation Product Review: Lightbox

Puzzle boxes are among the oldest and most intricate mechanical brain teasers in the long history of puzzles, and they’re only growing more complex and ambitious. With the advent of 3D-printing, access to new materials, and computer design elements to help bring ideas to fruition, the only limit at this point is the imagination.

In today’s blog post, we look at the latest innovation in the puzzle box genre of brain teasers: Lightbox by Eric Clough.

This Kickstarter-funded puzzle box arrives in fairly innocuous packaging. When you remove the lid, you find a second box make of lasercut felt inside. These six pieces of this box make up its own little puzzle, as well as doubling as light-absorbing packaging for the main event.

Inside, we find the Lightbox, a stack of ten magnetically-connected acrylic plates, plus the thicker bottom plate containing a USB-rechargeable battery.

I plugged in the USB cord (included, naturally) in order to charge the battery, and twisted a few of the plates into different configurations, watching as the box lit up in my hands. (I only needed to charge it a little bit before pulling the plug and playing with the Lightbox for almost an hour.)

As you manipulate the various plates into different combinations, the lights embedded in the various plates would activate, and light would play off of the holes cut into each plate, creating 3D sculptures of light and reflection within the Lightbox itself. I’ve never seen anything like it.

You can move individual plates or stacks of plates by lifting them off the main stack, twisting, and then repositioning them. (I call it twisting, even though you’re not twisting the box like parts of a Rubik’s Cube, you’re lifting them and rotating them 90 degrees, 180 degrees, or 270 degrees.)

Sometimes, it’s fun simply to see what effect each action has on the interplay of lit plates and dark plates. Getting the entire cube to light up is a real treat.

Eventually, the time comes when you’re ready to put the Lightbox away for a bit. (That little battery ensures that just unplugging the USB cable doesn’t do the job.) And no puzzler worth their salt is going to put it away still lit up, right?

And then, of course, another layer of puzzling begins, as you twist and place the various plates and watch them either light up or go dark, depending on their positions. It can be both amazing and frustrating when you twist a plate halfway up the stack, and suddenly the entire box lights up! Diabolical!

Lightbox straddles the line between puzzle and art, making it a great desktop bauble. (Though I think I’ll leave mine at home. Otherwise, I won’t get anything done at work.) The smart packaging and clever design ensure you’ll return to this puzzle again and again.

Admittedly, some of the lights flicker a bit instead of shining brightly, as if the connections aren’t quite perfect, but that’s a small nitpick for something this delightful.

[You can find more information about Lightbox by clicking here, and explore its long journey from idea to product by clicking here.]


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Sneaker Solving edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today I’d like to return to the subject of 3-D puzzles.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

We’ve mentioned 3-D puzzles several times on the blog in the past — in discussions of 3-D printed puzzles, puzzles made of wood, and the Pict project at National Museums Scotland — and a new 3-D puzzle has been generating some buzz recently.

Friend of the blog, creator of Baffledazzle, and shoe aficionado Rachel Happen passed along this story about a promotional puzzle designed to mimic the qualities of the Air Flight Jordan 45 hightop basketball sneaker. Check it out:

Only 30 of these puzzles are being made, and they’re selling for 195 pounds in the UK, which is a staggering $245.85 in the US! Seems like quite a price to pay for a 19-piece puzzle. (Especially one, as this video shows, that can be solved fairly quickly.)

The creation of graphic artist Yoni Alter, this puzzle appears to be a new venture, diverting from his previous works in silkscreen and prints, including this similarly-styled lamborghini:

Too pricey for most puzzlers and not wearable enough for most sneaker enthusiasts, I’m not sure who this puzzle was designed for, but I’m curious to see how it sells.

As for me, I think I’ll save my 195 pounds for another day and another puzzle.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Crossword Art edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of crossword-inspired art!

A few weeks ago, I dedicated an entire post to crossword art, exploring paintings, mixed-media collages, and sketches that all had their roots in crossword grids and the wordplay contained therein.

What I neglected to mention is that there have also been crossword-fueled works of performance art.

In 2006, the Steven Wolf Fine Arts gallery in San Francisco — now sadly closed — hosted twin performance artists Kevin and Kent Young in an exhibition they called “Another Monozygotic Experiment in Telepathic Conveyance.”

[Images (this and the one below) courtesy of Art Business.com.]

And what, pray tell, is a monozygotic experiment in telepathic conveyance?

Simple, really. One of the twins randomly selects a crossword puzzle and attempts to psychically project each clue to the other twin, who then fills in the answers to those clues on an oversized grid.

This goes on for 40 minutes, at which point they end the attempt and compare notes to see how well their telepathy worked.

But they’re not done. Oh no.

They then proceed to dance, performing some sort of choreographed display reminiscent of country line dancing.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I first stumbled across “crossword performance art,” but I assure you, dancing never even crossed my mind.

Then again, how else would you celebrate tag-team solving a crossword psychically?

Clearly the Young Brothers have their own unique way of puzzling, but it was kind of them to share it with the world at large, contributing to the overall world of crossword art in an unexpected way.


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