WE have been collecting decorative initials in our big file of illustrations. One never knows, after all, when one might need to begin a word in a grandiose fashion, and then nothing does the job like a big decorated woodcut letter from the Renaissance. Many of these initials have abstract or vegetative patterns for their decoration, or curious grotesque works like the vegetable fish in the W that begins this article. But some initials are historiated, as the bibliophiles call them: that is, they have pictures of something definite in them. The challenge is in identifying what the pictures are meant to represent.

In many cases, the point of the picture is that it represents something that begins with that letter. (It seldom has anything to do with the text introduced by the initial.) For example, here is a B:

Anyone familiar with the book of Numbers will recognize Balaam and his ass immediately, with the sword-bearing angel standing in their way. Here again is an O:

O is for Orpheus, charming the beasts with his music.

Some of the letters are more challenging, however. Here is a T:

It appears to depict a necktie salesman negotiating with the Deity. (“I think you would look positively divine in paisley.”) Tie begins with a T, so that would fit.

Here is one where the story is obvious, but its connection with the letter is not:

The story of Aristotle playing horsie with Phyllis was fabulously productive of art in the Renaissance, so there is no trouble in identifying the subject. But neither of the characters’ names begins with D. Perhaps D is for dominatio.

There are some initials for which Dr. Boli has not been able to formulate so much as a hypothesis. Here are three of them, and readers are invited to make their own guesses. What has F to do with a man caught by a bear? What has M to do with aggressively stomping flowers? What has V to do with riding on the back of a lion?

See more splendidly decorated initials on the page of initials in our collection of illustrations.


  1. Fred says:

    My three best guesses are: food; mimicking a monkey; and very large vole.

  2. Mary says:

    M is obviously for Mayhem…

  3. Campion says:

    Perhaps T is for Tarsus, and that’s supposed to be St. Paul? I’d suggest M is for madness, but that’s assuming these are from writers using English (or another language with a word for it that starts with M).

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