Micrography—A Jewish Art (Dalia-Ruth Halperin)

Micrography - a Jewish art

Hebrew Bible manuscripts are often decorated with micrography – a Jewish scribal art that forms the outline of images in tiny script. Dr Dalia-Ruth Halperin considers the use of micrography and Carmina Figurata in Hebrew manuscripts.
The text used to create the micrography was frequently from the Masorah tradition[1] – which was developed around the late 7th to beginning of the 8th century CE as a way to stabilise and maintain the accuracy of the biblical text. The earliest examples of micrography are found in Near Eastern[2] biblical manuscripts which are decorated with geometric designs including structures, primarily arches. Masoretic[3] collections have been in existence since the 10th century CE, for example the anonymous compilation ‘Okhlah ve-Okhlah’,[4] which is arranged alphabetically in the form of a concordance[5] and contains pairs of words that appear in Scripture. Another example is the contemporary grammatical compilation by Aharon ben-Asher, Dikduke ha-teʿamim (The rules of the details of Accents).
Another form of patterned miniscule script is the Carmina Figurata – poetry that appeared in manuscripts from Classical times and Carolingian[6] copies. It bears a likeness to micrography decoration in the sense of text formed into shapes. It was, at one time, thought to be the visual source that influenced the development of micrography. However, several essential differences dispute this. The most important is that, whereas in micrography the penned text line forms the contour of the shapes, in Carmina Figurata the form is created with written lines of different lengths, one under the other, within its contour. The shapes are the visual equivalents of a poem’s textual content, and there is a direct connection between the text and the image.
Although some pieces of micrography which form Carmina Figurata do exist, they do not show any association between form and text. The connections to the origins of Carmina Figurata are actually found in parts of Islamic art, which show that it was the primary and most influential visual source for decoration in Hebrew manuscripts, including micrography.

Karaite Book of Exodus

10th-century CE Hebrew Bible fragment from Palestine or Egypt (Or 2540, f. 3r; compare with a Qur’an written around 900 CE and kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin), Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

10th-century CE Hebrew Bible fragment from Palestine or Egypt (Or 2540, f. 3r; compare with a Qur’an written around 900 CE and kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin)

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These Masoretic Bibles use two script sizes on the same page. The main biblical text is written in two or three columns in square letters. The Masoretic text in micrography is written in a semi-square alphabet in between the columns and at the top and bottom margins of the page.  In Sephardic[7] Masoretic Bibles the letters that make up the micrography are generally no more than a millimetre in height, and one cannot easily see that the lines are formed by letters. In Ashkenazic[8] Masoretic Bibles the words used in micrography are considerably larger and easier to read.

The Duke of Sussex Bible

Duke of Sussex Bible with Masorah magna and parva, Catalonia, 3rd quarter of the 14th century CE, Add MS 15252, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Duke of Sussex Bible with Masorah magna and parva, Catalonia, 3rd quarter of the 14th century CE (Add MS 15252, f. 116v)

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The Yonah Pentateuch

Jonah inside the fish’s mouth. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE, Add MS 21160, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Jonah inside the fish’s mouth. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160, f. 292r)

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Common scholarly opinion asserts that there was no connection between the decoration in most micrography and the text it adorns. Meaning that it was seldom, if ever, read it in its entirety. I maintain that reading the micrography text deepens an understanding of the writing, as well as the systems used to fashion the flow of words creating the decoration. Therefore the appropriate research methodology for micrography requires a precise reading of the micrographic text.

The Sana'a Pentateuch

Carpet pages with verses from the Psalms in micrography. Yemen, Sana'a, 1469 CE. Grammatical Introduction (Makhberet ha-Tigan), Or 2348, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Carpet pages with verses from the Psalms in micrography, Yemen, Sana'a, 1469 CE, Grammatical Introduction (Makhberet ha-Tigan) (Or 2348, ff. 38v-39r)

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A manuscript from Yemen dated to 1469 CE, and known as the Sana’a Pentateuch, features decorated rectangular carpet pages inspired by the Islamic artistic tradition. The carpet pages have a similar design; however there are slight differences in the layout of the central micrographic decorations.
Each carpet page has a micrography decoration that forms a rose-shaped decoration in the centre surrounded by two concentric circles. Between them, swimming in circular motion, are five pairs of fish. This centre piece is held by triangular mountain-like forms at the top and bottom. The background is filled with filigree designs in black and red. The forms reflect Islamic cosmological concepts with the sun at the centre and then the sea and the land.
Reading the micrography reveals that this image was penned with Psalm 119 in an acrostic,[9] with each letter beginning a cluster of eight verses. The hymn speaks of the relation of Man to the Torah.[10] As the Torah is believed to be the plan of the universe, we can see in these images a symbolic association between a design and a text forming its contours. These literary connections are not unique to this manuscript; they can be found in many others – a fact that should urge us to read the micrography.
Why did micrographers add Masoretic text in these visual shapes, making the text so much more difficult to read? This art form may be a visual midrash – a biblical interpretation – on the verse from Avot Tractate 3:13 ‘masoret se’yag la-Torah’ (‘Tradition is a fence around the Torah’). This would explain the use of micrography as the borders defined by a visual fence, just as the text itself guards the biblical words. The need to continuously turn the manuscript around to read the wavy text can also be considered a visual midrash for Avot Tractate 5:22 ‘hafokh bah ve-hafokh bah dekuleʾ bah u-bah teḥzai’ (‘Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it’), as we have to continuously turn the pages in order to read the text and learn its secrets.

Footnotes


[1] The collection of information and comment on the text of the traditional Hebrew Bible by the Masoretes
[2] Geographical term that roughly encompasses Western Asia
[3] Groups of Jewish scribe-scholars who worked between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, based primarily in present-day Israel in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq (Babylonia)
[4] Okhlah ve-Okhlah is the name of a grammatical treatise, named after the first two words found in a Masoretic list (‘eating’ I Samuel 1:9) ‘and eat’ (Genesis 27:19) which enumerates pairs of words, one having the conjunctive ‘vav’, the other without
[5] An alphabetical list of the words (especially the important ones) present in a text or texts
[6] The Carolingian dynasty was a Frankish noble family with origins in the Arnulfing and Pippinid clans of the 7th century CE
[7] Descendants of Jews who left Spain or Portugal after the 1492 expulsion
[8] Jews from eastern France, Germany and Eastern Europe and their descendants
[9] A poem or hymn where the first letter of each line, for example, spells out a word or a message
[10] In Judaism, the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (the Pentateuch)


Dalia-Ruth Halperin
  • Dalia-Ruth Halperin
  • Dr. Dalia-Ruth Halperin is a lecturer in the Department of Art Talpiot College of Education, Holon, Israel. Dalia-Ruth is a specialist in Hebrew Micrography and focusses on the complex ties between the penned texts and the images formed, as well as on the eschatological and kabbalistic content of such images. Her monograph on the Catalan Micrography Mahzor entitled Illuminating in Micrography, was published by Brill in 2013.

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