Writing in Hebrew Manuscripts The Power of Script and Image, Ilana Tahon tells us micrography, also known as microcalligraphy, is “the weaving together of minuscule lettering into abstract, geometric and figurative designs.” Micrography is unique to Jewish art.
That is not quite the whole story. To understand the full tale of these little words, we need to go back to the Masoretes of ninth century Egypt and Palestine.
Torah Scrolls: Early Oral Tradition and Errors
Many historians believe the words of the Torah scrolls (the Five Books of Moses, or Pentateuch) read in synagogues today are the same as those handed to Moses at Mount Sinai.
In the early days, the people passed those laws on by word of mouth, and all sorts of errors in intonation and pronunciation crept in changing the meaning of the text. As soon as scribes began to record the laws on scrolls, they repeated those errors.
One of the problems with Torah scrolls is that they have only consonants. No vowels or accents appear; therefore intonation and pronunciation are not uniform. As in most languages, if someone pronounces a word incorrectly, its meaning changes.
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As the Jewish diaspora spread across the world, Jews realised the importance of preserving the correct interpretation of the Torah texts. They chose learned Jewish scholars, mostly from Egypt and Palestine, for this exacting task.
Masoretes Studied the Torah Scrolls
Known as Masoretes (from masorah, meaning tradition), they scrutinised the scrolls, eliminating errors and establishing rules on intonation and pronunciation, so that Jews practising outside the land of Israel could maintain the consistency of the Jewish faith.
Scholars created a method of chanting symbols and vowel placement so that future generations would always have the correct pronunciation and interpretation. The Masoretes wrote spelling corrections and observations in marginal spaces or on separate sheets, refusing to alter original texts. They also introduced white spaces between words to break up the continuous text.
Ilana Tahon, in Hebrew Images, The Power of Script and Image, tells us micrography first appeared in bibles written in codices, the book format we know today, with pages stitched together, rather than the long sheets rolled into scrolls. The practice eventually spread to Europe and Yemen reaching its zenith between the 13th and 15th centuries.
At first, scribes used texts from the Masorah, the notes and rules established by the Masoretes, but eventually, as micrography became an art form in its own right, they used other sources, the “Book of Psalms” being particularly popular.
Decorative illustrations of sacred scrolls was not encouraged, but with the development of the codex, the rules regarding decoration were not so strict. Masoretic notes provided artists with plenty of opportunities for ornamentation and instead of writing notes in straight lines, scribes started to pattern them into a wide variety of different forms and shapes.
The San’a Pentateuch
The manuscript known as the San’a Pentateuch (Oriental 2348) has several fine examples of micrographic text.
Folios 38v-39r show micrography, mostly text from Psalms 119, 121 and 122, formed into highly stylised representations of fish swimming in the sea and climbing mountains.
Another interesting example of micrography appears on Folio 152r where micrographic text consists of Masoretic notes, again in the form of fish. The main text, written in two columns, is an extract from Shirat Ha’azinu (‘Give Ear’: Deuteronomy 32).
Shirat Ha’azinu is the poem recited by Moses before his death. Down the centre of the page we see decorations consisting of medallions filled with coloured rosettes and geometric patterns.
The San’a Pentateuch originates in Yemen and dates to 1469. Recurring patterns include typical Jewish elements, with adapted Islamic mofits, probably inspired by contemporary Yemenite crafts.
The Yonah Pentateuch
Pentateuch Additional 21160 Folio 300v Full-page micrography of foliate scroll with dragons, at the text of Ruth.
Further fascinating examples of micrography appear on Folio 300v of the British Library’s Yonah Pentateuch (MS. Add. 21160). The creators shaped masoretic notes into a complex frame made of architectural structures inhabited by winged dragons.
The dragons’ tails form scrolls with floral appendages.
Curious animal heads emerge at the tip of each tail. The main text in the centre panel is the end of the Book of Ruth (4: 13-22) charting the lineage of King David.
One of the finest examples appears on Folio 28v of the Coburg Pentateuch, (British Library Additional MS 19776). On the top one third of the page, the masoretic notes form to make a face.
Twin animal bodies emerge from the mouth to fill both left- and right-hand spaces on either side of the head.
The central panel contains the initial-word We-elleh (and these) written in luxurious gold letters, highlighted with red ink, and surrounded by floral decoration.
The Little Words: The Legacy of the Masoretes
Thanks to the work of the Masoretes all those centuries ago, Jews throughout the diaspora know how to pronounce and intone the ancient Torah texts. Their painstaking initiative has ensured the consistency of Hebrew intonation and pronunciation around the world. Wherever Jews go, no matter what synagogue they visit, they will recognize those little words because of an adherence to an historical art form.