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. Thus, 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 CE onwards micrography was mainly used to decorate marriage contracts, amulets, Esther scrolls and other types of Hebrew texts written by hand.
The San’a Pentateuch is famed for its superb carpet pages, with stylised representations of mountains and fish swimming in the sea, outlined in scriptural micrography. The text used to create the micrographic shapes was taken from the Book of Psalms.
The Five Books of Moses with Masorah and a preliminary grammatical introduction were copied on paper in a typical Yemenite square script by Benaiah ben Saadia ben Zekhariah ben Marga (d. 1490 CE). Benaiah was a very skilled scribe who had worked on several commissions for Abraham ben Yosef al-Israili, the patron of this manuscript. It is likely that both the Islamic style ornamentation and the calligraphic configurations in the manuscript were created by the scribe.
Browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.