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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