codex page

Here is a book that blurs the line between surrealism and fantasy and pretends to be a book about things that are real. The Codex Seraphinianus is a book that was first published in 1981. People seem to agree that it is a strange book and also that it is a beautiful book.

This week the always interesting radio program/podcast To the Best of Our Knowledge did a program about it and some other “magic books.” Magic may be a strong label for the book, but it is one that is often attached to this visual encyclopedia of an unknown world written in an unknown language.

It seems ancient, but many readers also say that it is made for our information age. Coding and decoding may be something we associate with ancient writing, but it’s just as much as part of our sciences (computers, genetics) and literary criticism.

Calling it by the Latin codex recalls an older time when one needed to distinguish this type of book with pages from a scroll. The author, Luigi Serafini, is an Italian artist, architect and designer. So, the Codex Seraphinianus is, with a Latinisation of his name, is “the book of Serafini.”  His name comes from seraph which is a type of celestial or heavenly being in the Abrahamic religions. Literally they are “burning ones” a synonym for serpents when used in the Hebrew Bible.


St. Francis’ vision of a seraph in a fresco attributed to Giotto

The book is about  360 pages long (editions vary) and you can’t “read” it because the alphabet is unintelligible and using a writing system that is likely to be a false writing system modeled on our existing Western-style writing systems. Though we can’t read it, it seems to be left-to-right writing in rows, with uppercase and lowercase letters and some that also function as numerals.

The language of the book has interested linguists for decades. According to Wikipedia, the number system used for numbering the pages has been decoded by several people as a variation of base 21. Some experts have said the letters are used in ways similar to Semitic writing systems with an alphabet that resemble Sinhala alphabets. I’ll have to accept others knowledge, because for me it is just a strange and interesting and, perhaps, magical code.

The delight of the book is more for the hand-drawn, colored-pencil illustrations that include mostly fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods. Parts remind people of M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch. There are also “useless” machines, maps, human faces.

So why create such a book?  The author himself says (at a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles in 2009) that there is no hidden meaning hidden to the Codex. He calls it a kind of “automatic writing” and says he wanted his alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand.

Automatic writing (psychography) is said to be a psychic ability that allows a person to produce written words that arise from a subconscious, spiritual or supernatural source. More magic.

You can appreciate the book as just a fantastical visual experience to page through and wonder about.  You can search for a message.

codex pages