Friday, April 22, 2016

Micrography in Hebrew Manuscripts

The BL has just put up a new website for their digitized Hebrew manuscripts (mentioned here). You can now filter by Hebrew Bible manuscripts. There are 13 in all, seven of which are scrolls. There are some short articles on the new site as well that are worth reading. The most interesting one is on the subject of micrography. The description for the Sana’a Pentateuch (A.D. 1469) describes it this way:
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.
There are some incredible designs in this micrography. Here is Psalm 119 in the Sana’a Pentateuch.

BL Or 2348, f. 39r and 38v
 And here is Jonah praying from the fish beside the text of Jonah 2 in the “Jonah Pentateuch.”

BL Add MS 21160, f. 292r
For more on micrography, see Illuminating in Micrography by Dalia-Ruth Halperin (Brill, 2013).

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