A Picture’s Worth
a Thousand Words
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 11/10/14

Early-20th-century newspaper editors first quantified the thousand-word ratio for a picture’s value, but people have been communicating visually for millennia. We’ve transmitted wordless narratives through media as diverse as cave painting, embroidery, stained glass, print and film. And the practice continues today with sharing sites like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr. But does the tradition prove a picture’s really worth a thousand words? That’s probably still a matter of preference.

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Cave Paintings
to  Stained Glass Windows

Paleolithic cave art represents a huge step for humankind. The thousands of beautiful images like those at Lascaux and Chauvet in France, for example, some more than 30,000 years old, are intriguing markers of prehistoric people using the natural environment to share their concerns visually. Such pictures may record hunting expeditions, have been inspired by ritual hallucinations or illustrate cosmic mythologies. But they also reminded viewers about the things that were most crucial to their communities, spotlighting their essential mystery and humans’ increasing mastery of them.

Colorful paintings of horses, mammoths and other animals added drama to the sacred rites believed to have been performed in the caves; the flickering firelight may have even made them seem animated. Millennia later in France the medieval builders of Notre Dame de Paris and other great cathedrals perched carved monstrous gargoyle sentinels along their rooflines, encouraging a similarly primal sense of mystery and fear. Once worshippers entered, stained glass windows moved them to ecstasy. The light streaming through the Virgin Mary’s image in Chartres Cathedral prompted even a 19th-century American essayist like Henry Adams to rhapsodize, “If you had only the soul of a shrimp, you would crawl…to kiss her feet.”

Stained Glass Windows
to  Bayeux Tapestry  (embroidered textile | c. 1070)

The Bayeux Tapestry’s dozens of scenes, embroidered on linen with woolen yarns, depict the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. Masterful stitching enables great storytelling, full of knights, royal retinues, castles, sailing ships and gory battles. Even Halley’s comet—well documented as portentously shooting across English skies at the time—makes an appearance, its first in an artwork.

Most medieval Bayeux viewers would have been illiterate, but they were accustomed to getting visual information in church, where stained glass windows depicting stories from scripture served as often exhaustive Bibles for the poor: The 6,458 square feet of stained glass in the upper chapel of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris illustrate more than 1,130 figures. But the sumptuous multicolor scenes that became standard in medieval cathedrals were not exclusively religious. Some of the 176 stained glass windows in Chartres, installed in the early 13th century, show local laborers toiling; the clergy was likely pandering to a restless populace. One of 231 windows in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., also skews secular. It symbolizes the Apollo 11 moon landing, a celestial event as momentous for 1960s America as Halley’s comet was during the Middle Ages.

Bayeux Tapestry  (embroidered textile | c. 1070)
to  Rebuses

Viewers who know their medieval bestiary can detect hidden messages in the Bayeux Tapestry. Peacocks, perched above the palace of French ruler William the Conqueror, represent luxury and vanity; griffins, stitched into the borders surrounding battlefield scenes, denote guardian spirits. Foxes and wolves evoke trickery and duplicity, and camels are signs of endurance and patience.

These symbols may now require a little scholarly detective work to decipher, but they were plain as day to medieval observers for whom rebuses, or pictorial representations of names or phrases, were commonplace. This audience would have immediately recognized a carving of a bolt (i.e., an arrow) passing through a tun (a barrel) as the rebus for someone named Bolton. And an owl clutching a banner emblazoned with the letters DOM would designate the Oldham (pronounced “owl-dom”) clan. In the 18th century, French philosopher Voltaire discerned a dinner invitation in a picture of two hands positioned beneath the letter P: as in, deux mains sous Pé (“two hands under P”) = demain souper, or “supper tomorrow.” Today the rebus seems poised for a comeback. People who suggest meeting at Starbucks by texting *S are clearly masters of the art.

Stained Glass Windows
to  Lynd Ward  (1905–1985 | American artist)

In the mid-1100s architects developed pointed arches and exterior buttresses to give cathedrals structural support, thus freeing up walls for larger windows. Artisans filled these expanses with stained glass, often thousands of colorful fragments pieced together into images. As a storytelling device, the windows translated important biblical tales and lessons into pictures, providing a backup to the religious instruction the illiterate faithful often heard aloud. When illuminated from outside, the windows’ stories and symbolism could seem like revelations from God, the colorful light filling the church as divinely generated.

Experiencing Lynd Ward’s wordless pictorial novels is strangely akin to walking through a medieval cathedral and marveling at the stained glass. His stark, beautifully rendered wood engravings provide striking evidence for the superfluousness of words. Ward produced six novels between 1929 and 1937, some more than 100 pages long. In Gods’ Man, the first and best known, 139 full-page images tell the Faustian story of a starving artist who accepts a magic paintbrush from a stranger with the promise that it will make him rich and famous. Ward’s “readers” move from image to image, participating in creating the story as a literate audience that is beyond the need for words.

Lynd Ward  (1905–1985 | American artist)
to  Man With a Movie Camera  (Dziga Vertov (dir.) | film | 1929)

Man With a Movie Camera is unashamedly optimistic, showing the people of the Soviet Union constantly on the move and aided by modern machinery. Among these people is the cameraman himself, who is shown filming some entertaining scenes: He cranks his camera from a speeding automobile and on girders high above a city. Workers dig a hole between train tracks, and he climbs in, camera in hand. We know the trick, but we’re still nervous when a train races straight toward our view. Soviet powers condemned these effects as bourgeois manipulation, but they’re inarguably magical.

Artist Lynd Ward created wordless novels with his expertly crafted wood engravings. As in Man With a Movie Camera, the medium crucially enhances the message: Quick cuts in the film create a frenetic impression, while Ward’s dark, heavily lined images produce the opposite effect. As Art Spiegelman, who continued the visual storytelling tradition in groundbreaking graphic novels such as Maus, has commented of Ward’s medium, “To make a wood engraving is to insist on the gravitas of an image. Every line is fought for, patiently, sometimes bloodily. It slows the viewer down. Knowing that the work is deeply inscribed gives an image weight and depth.”

Man With a Movie Camera  (Dziga Vertov (dir.) | film | 1929)
to  Pinterest  (website | est. 2010)

Man With a Movie Camera depicts 24 hours in a Soviet city through rapidly sequenced images of factories, monumental buildings and traffic-jammed streets. Director Dziga Vertov believed all films should be documentaries, without plot, characters or dialogue. Showing life in the new, idealistic Soviet Union, he spotlights progress and modernism but also the human life cycle, with scenes of childbirth and a funeral. Vertov compressed 1,775 shots into just 68 minutes: Scene after scene flashes by, unsettling for contemporary viewers used to silent films’ slower pace. The New York Times proclaimed Vertov “does not take into consideration the fact that the human eye fixes for a certain space of time that which holds the attention.”

The 70 million–plus users of Pinterest, with its cramped mother lode of juxtaposed images, clearly believe the eye can withstand a plethora of visual stimulation. Unlike other photo-sharing sites, e.g., the more popular Instagram, Pinterest promotes itself as a vehicle for aspiration. Users turn crowded boards into de facto stories about the way our lives could be, told through an often materialistic lens that largely focuses on clothing, food and well-appointed rooms. Although far from Vertov’s Marxist tone, Pinterest certainly shares the film’s idealism.

Bayeux Tapestry  (embroidered textile | c. 1070)
to  Pinterest  (website | est. 2010)

Legend has it that Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, died in the Battle of Hastings when a knight pierced his eye with an arrow. Figured in the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold’s slaughter has been public record since the late 11th century, when the slender cloth—225 feet long but only 20 inches tall—was hung in Normandy’s Bayeux Cathedral. But was this really Harold’s fate? Scholars have debated how he died for centuries, and even the tapestry may offer two versions: Another scene shows a Norman horseman hacking a warrior who could also be Harold.

Keeping in mind that pictures can be deceiving, users of the image-sharing website Pinterest should heed Harold’s mystery as they browse. The site’s myriad staged, photoshopped glimpses of modern life often present a take on reality that’s as distorted as a TV sitcom or as skewed as a doctored hoax image. Although some word-loving critics have complained the site is for people who “will do anything to avoid having to read,” Pinterest has been one of the fastest-growing social media venues, which proves a picture can be worth a thousand words—or at least outshine a 140-character tweet.