|Micrography is minute script written into
or formed into the shape of objects, animals or human figures. This
Jewish art dates possibly from the late 9th century CE and were written
by Jewish scribes in Eretz Yisrael and in Egypt. Micrography developed
within the Islamic cultural surroundings, in which the written word was
frequently transformed into elaborate decorative patterns. Spreading
there to Yemen, and to Europe; a tradition that has been sustained
the present day.
Hebrew micrography was the creation of the scribes of Tiberias in Eretz Yisrael. Much of the earliest micrography is found in biblical codices. These Bibles in book form, unlike Torah scrolls, were not subject to the constraing rabbinical rules determining the arrangement of the text and the design of the letters. The most common text, employed by scribes to create their micrographic artistry, was the masorah. The masorah ("tradition") is the system of notes in the margin of biblical codices; which counted and listed each word in the Hebrew Bible, how many times and where it appeared in exactly the same form. The scribes (soferim) were already accustomed to writing the minuscule script for tefillin and for mezuzot scrolls. These required a disciplined, minute hand, written on a tiny piece parchment, many only one inch square. Figuring the text into designs was an outlet for their creative talents while occupied with the drudgery of copying out the masorah. Later, scribes began to fashion these masoretic notations into floral motifs, intricate geometric designs, figures and decorations in a form known as internal micrography. Alternatively the masoretic notes, psalms or dedications might also be combined with a painted ornament to compose a full page frontispieces or carpet. This is known as external micrography
In the earliest Bible codices of Eretz Yisrael and Egypt, the
was usually geometric and abstract, in keeping
with the contemporary Islamic
art. Some architectural and plant motifs are also to found. The
dated medieval Hebrew manuscript of 895-6 CE is in the Cairo Karaite
it is the Moshe Ben-Asher Codex of the Prophets. This already shows
masorah in both forms. , From the late eighth to the early tenth
members of the Ben-Asher family were considered master masoretes. From
the 12th century In Egypt, ketubbot (marriage contracts) were decorated
Strong criticism was voiced by the renowned rabbi Judah He-Hasid (1150-1217) a member of the 12th and 13th century pietist circle known as the Hasidei Ashkenaz, who complained that the masoretic text was rendered unusable by the designs. He stipulated that a patron commissioning a scribe to copy a Bible, must instruct the scribe not to shape the masorah into any ornamental patterns.
In the Ashkenazi manuscripts of Northern Europe they were frequently inhabited by animals and grotesques similar to that found in the margins of Gothic illuminated manuscripts. Marginal masorah was also woven into a variety of animate forms depicting lions, elephants, ducks, goats, horses, deer, bears, camels, dragons, unicorns and jousting knights; and inanimate forms in the shape of keys, flags and masks. Some scribes even left their names in micrography as well.
The heyday of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi micrography was the
to fifteenth centuries.The
Haggadah are exquisite examples. In the mid-fifteenth century the
of printing reduced the number of manuscript Bibles that were produced.
Yet Jewish scribes did not abandoned micrography as a form of artistic
Even after the decline of manuscript production in the sixteenth century, micrography continued to be used to decorate ketubbot and wall hangings. Italian scribes began to decorate ketubbot with micrography. They chose verses from the Song of Solomon, Psalms, Proverbs, and from the books of Ruth and Esther, and blessings for the good fortune of the bride and groom based on biblical passages, drawing them in geometric and architectural forms, flowers, family crests, and even the nude forms of Adam and Eve. From the seventeenth century onward, scribes who practised the art of micrography favoured the texts of the five Megillot, Psalms and Proverbs as the basis of their art. Other micrographic illustrations on parchment or fine paper were also made in Italy, among them Omer calendars for use in counting the days between Passover and the beginning of Shavuot together with Sukkah decorations and Purim pieces.
In 1798, the invention of lithography extended the
beyond the exclusive realm of one-of-a-kind manuscripts. Throughout the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the mass production of micrographic
prints allowed this ancient art form to reach a much broader Jewish
The potential of the lithographic press for inexpensive reproduction
dissemination of micrography presented the Scribes and printers with a
new outlet for their talents. In the 19th century these prints
a wide variety of themes; biblical portraits and vignettes as well as
of the holy sites of Israel were especially popular. Famous rabbinic,
and literary personalities were also favoured subjects; their
portraits were exactingly rendered from the minute words and letters of
their own books and poems. Micrography surfaced in England,
Holland, Russia and Poland as well, and toward the end of the century
art was brought to America and North Africa. In the late 20th century
scribes and calligraphers continued to practice the art, introducing
subjects and finding creative applications of this ancient art form.
of superb examples, such as the Barcelona and Rylands Haggadah are
and printed in expensive limited editions. Jewish schools are
there pupils find expression in this art form. Examples of which can be
found on the world wide web.