Blog reader Eugen Antal has found a beautiful chronogram in a Slovak archive. Can a reader decode it?

Today I’m going to write about a common kind of steganography that has never played much of a role in my publications: chronograms. A chronogram is an inscription in which specific letters, interpreted as Roman numerals, stand for a particular date when when added.

The only chronogram I have ever written about is located in Klosterneuburg near Vienna, Austria:

Source: Anonymous (used with permission)

As can be seen, the following letters are enlarged and written in red: V, I, C, I, D, I, M, L, V, L, I, V. If we add the Roman numerals represented by these letters, we get:

5 + 1 + 100 + 1 + 500 + 1 + 1000 + 50 + 5 + 50 + 1 + 5 = 1719

1719 is the year when this plate (and the column it is attached to) was built.

As can be read on Wikipedia, many more chronograms are known to exist. In most cases, the marking of the letters is less obvious than on the column plate shown above. So, a chronogram can be regarded as an information hiding technique, i.e., as steganography, though the message hidden is usually not secret.

 

An unknown chronogram?

All chronograms I have seen so far are included in public inscriptions on building fronts, in churches or on memorials. Blog reader (and HistoCrypt publication chair) Eugen Antal …

Source: Schmeh

… from Bratislava has now provided me scans of a chronogram he found in a Slovak archive. It only exists as a drawing (at least, Eugen and I are not aware of a real-world version of it). Unfortunately, this chronogram was a single find without any additional information. So, we don’t know who created it and when it was made.

Slovak National Archive. Family archive Pálffy Červenokamenská línia. Box num. 137, inv. n. 1195

The first question I ask myself is, of course, what the Roman numerals mean. My attempt to decode them looks as follows:

Top

I CLV L V L I LVXI I V = 344

C VID C C LV I I V DCV = 1466

Left

IV X L V I V V L I = 133

VIC V CIV M L D V = 1782

Right

VIXL I I C L D M VIV = 1729

V V VI VL I I V = 78

Bottom

I CLY V V ICL C V V C V C L = ?

I C X L D X D V L = 1226

To be honest, I have no idea what these numbers are supposed to mean. Do they encode one or several years (if not, this would be, by definition, not a chronogram)?

And then, I wonder what the letter Y means in the bottom section. Y is not a Roman numeral. Should it be read as a V? Or as a combination of I and V? Perhaps, a reader can help.

 

A cryptogram?

Let’s now look at the text below the chronogram:

Below almost every word there is a number:

433 4 43 124 163 20 4 49 79 186 61 372

This looks like a short message encrypted in a nomenclator. If my assumption is correct, it will be as good as possible to decipher this cryptogram without having the substitution table. Can a reader make sense of this note anyway?

And, finally, can a reader knowledgeable in art history estimate when this chronogram was created? My (layman) guess is that it was made in the Baroque era, i.e., some time between the early 17th and the mid-18th century. Better-founded guesses are welcome.


Further reading: The Langelsheim inscription: an unsolved cryptogram on a baroque altar

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Kommentare (23)

  1. #1 Thomas
    9. Juli 2019

    This document was written by Johann Graf Palffy (1664-1751, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%A1nos_P%C3%A1lffy?wprov=sfla1), presumably in honor of his father (“filius obedientissimus” – most obedient son). On the right, in line 1, the fourth numeral seems to be a I instead of a L (vixit with a little t after the I). This yields 1679, the year his father, Nikolaus Graf Palffy, had passed away.
    Klaus: Isn’t the third to last letter on the left a I (“martis”) instead of a L, which yields 1723?

  2. #2 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    As to the last lines, this is not a nomenclator. Instead, every letter has been assigned to a certain number:

    A = 1
    B = 2
    C = 3

    I = 9
    K = 10
    L = 20
    M = 30

    S = 90
    T = 100
    U = 200

    In this way: SUDORI = 90 + 200 + 4 + 50 + 80 + 9 = 433, AC = 1 + 3 = 4 etc.
    Caution: there are several “æ” ligatures. Read “famae” in the first line, and “caelo praemia” in the second one.

  3. #3 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    And the magic of the last lines is:
    433 + 4 + 43 + 124 + 167 + 216 + 20 + 4 + 49 + 79 + 186 + 61 + 372 = 1758

    So, this is a chronogram itself, presumably indicating the year of creation. Then the author (“Joannes Comeo Palffy”, John Count Palffy) could be János VIII Count Pálffy, according to

    http://genealogy.euweb.cz/hung/palffy5.html

    He was the grandson of János V (the one suggested by Thomas).

  4. #4 Thomas
    10. Juli 2019

    Bravo, Norbert! I think you’re right, for on top: 285+1473=1758. (Klaus’ transcription contains some L = 50, where the Latin text has i = I = 1).

  5. #5 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    @Thomas: I think, each and every chronogram here yields 1758 …

  6. #6 Thomas
    10. Juli 2019

    As to the Roman numerals beneath the coat of arms: The Y stands for V and I ( small V above small I). Nevertheless, the two lines (1173 and 584) only add up to 1757, maybe I’ve overlooked one ‘I’?

  7. #7 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    Admittedly, the lines written top-down are a bit tricky. I get 579 + “Y” and 1177. So, if Y counts 2 (as it can be regarded as composed by two “I”s), it’s 581 + 1177 = 1758.

  8. #8 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    I propose that János VIII Count Pálffy who signed as “filius obedientissimus Johannes Comeo Palffy” ([your] most obedient son John Count Palffy) dedicated this drawing to his mother Josepha (1708 – 1761; his father Miklós VI died as early as in 1734) in 1758, on the occasion of her fiftieth birthday. Hence, each chronogram sums up to 1758.

  9. #9 Richard SantaColoma
    http://proto57.wordpress.com/
    10. Juli 2019

    It looks like you guys have figured this out… congrats.

    Does anyone know where the Pálffy family crypt, or mausoleum may be? Because the original sketch looks to me like it may be a design for the lid of a sarcophagus, or perhaps a memorial stone in a church, etc.

  10. #10 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    @Richard: I would not expect “your obedient son” on an epitaph. I think you sign like this when you write to a living person. That is why I prefer the birthday present theory …

  11. #11 Thomas
    10. Juli 2019

    @Norbert
    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Am wondering whether Josepha was a math teacher 😉

    @Richard
    The family crypt is located in this church in Bratislava: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Martin%27s_Cathedral%2C_Bratislava?wprov=sfla1, unfortunately there seem to be no photos online.

  12. #12 Lercherl
    10. Juli 2019

    It’s “comes”, not “comeo” which makes no sense whatsoever.

  13. #13 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    @Lercherl: thank you! It was a typo, and a copy-and-paste typo …

  14. #14 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    … and it does make sense:
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comes

  15. #15 Norbert
    10. Juli 2019

    OT: My abos on this blog are all broken. Apparently, I don’t get any notification from the Scienceblog site, although the “Abonnementverwaltung” looks ok (apart from newly added articles appearing under strange names like “__JPPNF__”).
    Anyone experiencing similar problems? Any tips?

  16. #16 Lercherl
    11. Juli 2019

    Here’s my attempt at transcription. Some readings are doubtful since the handwriting is quite hard to read and the reproduction is not too good. Anyway, it makes some sort of sense and fits the meter (distychs):

    Inclusos nobis tua gloria luxit in ortu
    hoc, video, crescet plus tibi vere decus.

    Vixisti longo, hoc ..eri, sed tempore, vive,
    atque ortus vitae fulserit(?) ipse tuae.

    Inclyta quae Hungarici creverunt cornua Cypris
    Istac ax patria dextera ad astra volant.

    Hostibus ex nostris quotiens pugnaveris ita
    Victor nuncius et Martis adesse queas.

  17. #17 Lercherl
    11. Juli 2019

    “hoc operi” would make sense in the second distych.

  18. #18 Thomas
    11. Juli 2019

    @ Lercherl
    It’s hard to decipher, indeed.

    Maybe ‘hoc overis’?

    ‘fulserit’? There seems to be no ‘f’, but a symbol standing for ‘et’ ( like between ‘gloria’ and ‘luxit’), something like ‘et visserit’?

    Can you make sense of the cornua Cypris (Aphrodite?) part?

  19. #19 Thomas
    11. Juli 2019

    Probably it says “cornua castris” as an allusion to the deer’s antler as part of the family’s coat of arms which could be seen by the Hungarians from their castles.

  20. #20 Norbert
    11. Juli 2019

    @Lercherl: Good job, thank you!

    Line 1: I suggest “fluxit” instead of “luxit”. Compare with “famae” in the bottom lines: the f has the same sort of ornament. Last word: ortus (plural).

    Line 3 (in your transcription): Thomas’ suggestion “overis” doesn’t work, because it contains a V which would ruin the addition. What about “oreris”? In the sense of “you haved lived for a long time, but at this time, we pray: live on!” (Can’t express this in the passive in English, and can’t explain the subjunctive.)

    Line 4: Definitely starting with f (cf. fluxit and famae). And definitely with inner L (don’t ruin the addition), so I think “fulserit” is right.

    Line 6: “ex patria”, and I read the subjunctive “volent” instead of “volant”. “Istac” should be right, but in all other cases the t is written with a very small ascender. Looks a bit like a misspelled “isthac”, but then, other instances of h are written without ascender, too … Let’s stick with istac.

  21. #21 Norbert
    11. Juli 2019

    @Thomas: Very good! Castris makes sense to me.
    Minor detail: Line 7, rather quoties than quotiens.

  22. #22 Thomas
    11. Juli 2019

    Why didn’t she teach her son a clear handwriting??? I agree, it seems that the L has a longer horizontal stroke than the bigram ‘Is’. Only a minor detail: In line 5 I read ‘Hungaricis’ (with an ‘s’ as an adjective to ‘castris’ in ablative case), meaning something like: In Hungarian castles they regard the horns (a symbol for the Palffy family) as glorious. You’re right, the character I took for an et-symbol is an ‘f’, hence: ‘fluxit’ and ‘fulserit’

  23. #23 Lercherl
    11. Juli 2019

    Putting all together, the most likely reading is

    InCLVsos nobIs tVa gLorIa fLVXIt In ortV
    hoC, VIDeo, CresCet pLVs tIbI Vere DeCVs.

    VIXIstI Longo, hoC operIs, seD teMpore, VIVe,
    atqVe ortVs VItae fVLserIt Ipse tVae.

    InCLYta qVae hVngarICIs CreVerVnt CornVa CastrIs
    IstaC eX patrIa DeXtera aD astra VoLant.

    HostIbVs eX nostrIs qVotIens pVgnaVerIs Ita
    VICtor nVnCIVs et MartIs aDesse qVeas.

    All four chronograms give the year 1758, if Y in the third one is counted as 2, which was not unusual.

    With some emendation (inclusis for inclusos) the first one probably means something like:

    We, enclosed [in the womb], received at birth the flow of your glory, verily, I see, thereby increasing your adornments.

    This makes sense when addressed to his mother.