It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what about a picture made up of a thousand tiny words? This week's featured item is a set of five Biblical scenes composed of the miniature writing known as micrography or micro-calligraphy. Not only do these scenes illustrate passages from the Bible, but the figures are actually made from the words of the Biblical verses being depicted.
The scenes illustrated in this set include Daniel in the lions' den, with text from Daniel 6; Samson slaying the lion, composed of the text from Judges 14; Samson pulling down the pillars of the Philistine temple and Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, both of which are drawn from sections of Judges 16; and the bearing of giant fruit from the land of the Canaanites, with the full text of Numbers 13. The tiny, handwritten text is at most 2mm high, and yet, the writing is clear, with a delicate precision. In the illustration of Daniel in the lions' den, strands of words form the lions' flowing manes and individual letters create the texture of Daniel's shirt. Some of the words are darker than others, creating subtle shading along the arch of the lions' backs or on the curve of a skull discarded in a corner of the scene.
These five examples of micrography date from the eighteenth century, but the origins of micrography can be traced as far back as the tenth century. The art form has its roots in Islamic calligraphy and calligrams, which are images created from words. In the beginning, micrography appeared primarily in Jewish biblical codices: the marginal notations in these codices became elaborate decorative elements, written in geometric and floral patterns. Micrography was also popular in Christianity and Islam because it circumvented the Second Commandment, which prohibited the depiction of “what is in the heavens above.”
As the technique spread throughout Europe around the thirteenth century, more elaborate motifs emerged, including depictions of humans, animals, and mythological beasts. According to the online exhibition of micrography presented by the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, "Bibles produced in France and Germany featured elaborate ornamental panels that introduce the individual biblical books." This is clearly exemplified by these intricate examples, which become full illustrations of the text itself.
The practice of micrography has evolved and changed over time, but is still in use to this day: many contemporary artists, calligraphers, graphic designers, and poets have explored the boundaries of this traditional art form.
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