Micrography is an original and charming expression of Jewish art dating back to the early Middle Ages still practised today. It entails using minute Hebrew script to create geometric patterns and animate forms. Micrographic decoration can already be found in some of the Hebrew Bibles produced in the Near East in the 9th and 10th century CE. With time, this unique form of Jewish art gradually spread beyond the boundaries of the Near East, to Europe and Yemen reaching its pinnacle between the 13th and 15th centuries CE.
Initially, the scribes used the Masorah (body of rules on the reading, spelling and intonation of the scriptural text) to shape the micrographic outlines in Hebrew Bibles, but over time they looked for other sources, a particular favourite being the Book of Psalms.
As with Jewish manuscript illumination itself, micrographic designs tended to follow the trends in the host environment at a particular time. So in Islamic lands and Spain the patterns and shapes delineated in Hebrew minuscule lettering were mainly architectural, geometric and vegetal, whereas in European countries such as France and Germany they were symbolic and figurative. Micrographic grotesques and fabulous creatures became quite popular in hand-copied books produced in Ashkenaz (Franco-German areas) in the medieval period. From the 17th century onwards, micrography was mainly used to decorate marriage contracts, amulets, Esther scrolls and other types of handwritten Hebrew texts.
In this manuscript, micrographic Masorah constitutes the sole decorative element. Many of the leaves are adorned with geometrical and abstract patterns outlined in microscopic Hebrew writing. Of particular note is the appealing candelabrum-tree at the Book of Joshua, folio 116v, and the leaf containing the beginning of Deuteronomy, folio 94v.
This complete Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), with vowels and accents was copied by a very skilled scribe in Catalonia, Spain in the third quarter of the 14th century CE. Details about the copyist, patron and the fate of the manuscript after completion remain obscure until the 16th century CE when it became the property of Samuel ben Moses of Medina (1505–1589 CE), a Talmudist from Salonica. Its last owner was the Duke of Sussex (1773–1843 CE) whose collection was sold to the British Museum in 1844.
Browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.