A hybrid of letters and pictures arranged to signify a sentence or phrase, the rebus transforms objects into ideas more explicitly than any other kind of communicative system. Its fundamental mechanism of representation enacts a connection between words and things and evokes the ways in which ideas, when inscribed in letters, are necessarily grounded in physical reality. Although the rebus is usually considered a light and popular form, its playful mixture of ideas and things is also used to negotiate sacred meaning, and even to embody the divine. This essay explores the multiple signifying strategies of the rebus in late medieval and early modern Europe, focusing especially on its surprising potential for devotional expression. Combining both objects and words offers readers in this complicated moment of cultural and theological change a powerful way to approach the depiction of God, and also to articulate the contours of the devotional self.

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