In all literate cultures, writing is used artistically. The subtle abstractions of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, the elegant distortions of Arabic inscriptions, and the elaborate zoomorphic and historiated initials letters of medieval Latin manuscripts are all examples of script as decoration. Micrography is minute script written into abstract patterns or formed into the shape of objects, animals or human figures. The earliest Hebrew micrographic texts date possibly from the late 9th century CE and were written by Jewish scribes in Palestine and in Egypt. This uniquely Jewish art spread to Egypt, Yemen, and Europe, where it reached its height from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries; this tradition has been sustained until the present day.

Hebrew micrography was the creation of the masorah scribes of Tiberias in Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel). The masorah ("tradition") is the system of marginal biblical notes which counted and listed each word in the Hebrew Bible, how many times and where it appeared in exactly the same form. The soferim, ritual scribes, adept at writing tiny mezuzot (doorpost scrolls), which had to be written in a disciplined, minute hand, were already accustomed to minuscule script. Figuring the text into designs was an outlet for their creative talents while occupied with the drudgery of copying out the masorah.

Notes appearing in the margins of Bible codices was often written into figural shapes and decorations (a form known as internal micrography). Masoretic notes and occasionally psalms or dedications might also be combined with painted ornament to compose full- ("carpet") page frontispieces (known as external micrography).

The earliest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript, the Moshe Ben-Asher Codex of the Prophets (dated 895-6 CE, Cairo, Karaite Synagogue), already shows micrographic masorah in both of these forms. Members of the Ben-Asher family were considered master masoretes, from the late eighth to the early tenth centuries. In Egypt, ketubbot (marriage documents) were decorated micrographically from the 12th century. In the earliest Bible codices of Eretz Yisrael and Egypt, the decoration was usually geometric and abstract, in keeping with the iconoclastic nature of contemporaneous Islamic art (although architectural and vegetal motifs are also found).

The uniqueness of micrography as a Jewish art form lies not only in its origins, but also in its continued existence. Handed down from one scribe to another, generation after generation, it spread from Eretz Yisrael and Egypt southward to Yemen and northward to Europe. In Yemen, Hebrew micrography reached its zenith in the fifteenth century. Marginal masorah in Yemen was simple and geometric, and closely knit parallel lines, zigzags, and diagonals were popular desings. The textual material of Yemenite carpet pages was biblical, with Psalms as the favorite.

By the thirteenth century, the Jewish scribes of Europe were already taking for granted the tradition of micrographic masorah in luxury Bibles. In Spain, the complex, interlacing non-figurative motifs represent the climax of Jewish art in this country. In marginal masorah, the scribe drew upon an extensive repertory of geometric, vegetal, abstract and representational forms, including such specifically Jewish symbols as the candelabra, the "tree of life" and the Magen David (Star of David). Occasionally, the subject of the biblical text would be illustrated in micrography.

The interlacing micrograms associated with the Sephardi (Spanish Jewish) tradition also appeared in Ashkenazi (Franco-German Jewish) manuscripts, but they were frequently inhabited by animals and grotesques common marginalia in Gothic illuminated manuscripts. Marginal masorah was also woven into a variety of animate and inanimate forms: lions, elephants, ducks, goats, horses, deer, bears, camels, keys, flags, masks, dragons, unicorns, and jousting knights. Occasionally, scribes left their names in micrography as well.

The heyday of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi micrography was the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. With the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, fewer manuscript Bibles were produced. Yet Jewish scribes did not abandoned micrography as a form of artistic expression. By the early 17th century, Italy scribes began to decorate ketubbot (marriage contracts) 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. Other micrographic illustrations on parchment or fine paper were also made in Italy, among them Omer calendars (used in counting the days between Passover and the beginning of Shavuot), Sukkah decorations, and Purim pieces.

In Europe from the 18th century, micrographic pictures portraying biblical or symbolic subjects related to holidays or prayers were written on parchment or paper and were intended to be hung in homes. Small bodies of benedictions for special occasions were also commissioned from scribes. In the 18th century micrographic portraits of royalty began to appear; in the 19th century rabbis, authors and leading Zionists were popular subjects, as were biblical scenes and holy sites in Jerusalem. Micrographers began to appear in England, France, Holland, Russia and Poland as well, and toward the end of the century the art was brought to America and North Africa and reintroduced in Eretz. Scribes and printers quickly began to realize the potential of the lithographic press for inexpensive reproduction and dissemination of micrography. In the late 20th century Jewish scribes and calligraphers continued to practice the art, introducing new subjects and finding creative applications of this ancient art form.


Leila Avrin is Senior Lecturer at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Until 1998 she was visiting Associate Professor in the School of Information and History of Art Department at the University of Michigan. Ms. Avrin teaches the history of books and printing, specializing in Hebrew manuscript illumination. She is the author of Micrography as Art, and was guest curator of an exhibition on Hebrew micrography at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, in 1981.
The angel of death in Jewish micography

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