Calligraphy: Hebrew Micrography

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The patterning of Hebrew texts into ornamental motifs is a medieval art form that bears the modern name of micrography, "minute writing." Within an artistic tradition almost universally consigned to dependency on one dominant culture or another because of its minority status, this distinctive calligraphic device represents one of the most original aspects of Jewish art.

Emergence of the Art

Micrographic decoration can be found on manuscripts from Yemen to Germany, but its historical origins lie in the eastern Mediterranean, during the first few centuries of Muslim rule. The earliest dated example is the Cairo Codex of the Prophets written in Tiberius in 894/5 ce by the renowned scholar Moshe ben Asher. In the manner of near-contemporary Qurʾāns, the manuscript contains five "carpet pages" of geometric and floral motifs, but six other full-page compositions are made up of elaborate micrographic patterns; simpler lettered designs are scattered throughout the margins of the text itself, and at the end, the patron's colophon is similarly framed with writing.

In addition to the Cairo Codex of the Prophets, patterned texts appear on at least fifteen other manuscripts and fragments dating from the tenth or eleventh century, all of which are associated with Egypt, although the scribes frequently come from elsewhere in the Muslim empire. Taken together, these early examples reflect quite clearly the dual Judeo-Muslim context that literally shaped the micrographic art. The meeting ground of the two, of course, was the veneration of the word of God, but while the Muslim scribes gave visual expression to this religious stance through the refinement of the letters that made up the divine words, their Jewish counterparts opted instead to fashion words into patterns. And here, the basic conservatism of the micrographic script, which is never regularized or embellished like the Arabic letters of the Qurʾān, may well reflect a reluctance to alter the alphabet that had been used for centuries in the writing of the Torah scroll (a practice carefully regulated in the Talmud).

The words chosen for patterning were drawn from the Bible itself and the masorah, the critical apparatus aimed at keeping the biblical text intact through an elaborate system of word counts. Significantly, the Cairo Codex of the Prophets is also the earliest dated Bible with masorah the activities of Masoretes and scribes alike (and Moshe ben Asher was both) were devoted in their respective ways to the preservation of the sacred scripture. On the popular level, these efforts were endowed with mystical and magical significance as well, through deeply rooted notions of letter symbolism and the power of the word.

In fact, it is this last dimension that suggests a concrete source for the convention of micrographic decoration, namely the amulets and charms that were commonly inscribed, in minuscule letters, with the names of God and biblical verses often patterned around magical figures. In the early micrographic Bibles, this amuletic inspirationand intentis apparent throughout, from arcane marginal decorations made up of in-text masorah to elaborate geometric carpet pages incorporating propitious biblical verses.

Later Developments

Within the Muslim world, micrography spread from the eastern Mediterranean to Yemen, where it became a highly developed art in the fifteenth century and continued into the seventeenth. The most striking example is a 1469 Pentateuch (British Museum, MS Or. 2348), with a double-page design that fashions Psalm 119 into a Mamluk metalwork pattern of mountains and fish.

Through the Iberian Peninsula the technique reached Europe by the the thirteenth century. Spanish variants on the Near Eastern repertoire include the addition of a framing text in large letters around carpet pages and the outlining of solid decorations with micrographic borders, as well as a few representational images in micrography illustrating the adjacent Bible text. The most elaborate Spanish Bible (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Hébreu 13141315) opens with eight carpet pages containing the entire biblical text in micrographic interlace.

In Germany and France, Gothic marginaliagrotesques and heraldic motifsmake their way into the micrographic tradition alongside the Near Eastern interlace, while the carpet pages at the beginning and end of the manuscript give way to full-page designs inserted between individual books of the Bible, including floral and animal motifs around the initial word of the biblical text. Full-page illustrations are also formed from micrographic text, as in the representations of Aaron found at the end of the Book of Exodus in a 1294/5 Pentateuch (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Hébreu 5).

Apart from a revival of decorated marriage contracts (ketubot ) in seventeenth-century Italy, micrography, like other manuscript arts, declined in the wake of the printed book. But the technique soon reemerged throughout eastern and western Europe in popular engravings and then lithographs, with subjects ranging from mizra and shiviti designs to indicate the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem to Bible illustrations, rabbi portraits, and postcard views from Palestine, all of which were often executed in an incongruously realistic style. Renewed interest in Jewish art has drawn some modern artists back to traditional micrography techniques.


The most extensive work on Hebrew micrography has been done by Leila Avrin, whose essay "Micrography as Art," published along with Colette Sirat's "La lettre hébraïque et sa signification" as Études de paléographie hébraïque (Paris, 1981), contains many illustrations and relevant bibliography. See also Avrin's "The Illustrations of the Moshe ben Asher Codex of 985 ce." (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1974).

New Sources

Avrin, Leila. "Hebrew Micrography." Ariel 53 (1983): 90100.

Metzger, Thérèse. "Ornamental Micrography in Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts." Bibliotheca Orientalis 43 (1986): 377388.

Miriam Rosen (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Calligraphy: Hebrew Micrography

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