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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Art: Leaf from a Qur’an Manuscript

» Unknown artist, attr. to Spain

Leaf from a Qur’an Manuscript

Leaf from a Qur’an Manuscript
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, attr. to Spain
Region: Europe
Date: 13th–14th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Ink, colors, and gold on vellum
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 21 1/16 in. (53.5 cm.), W: 22 in. (55.9 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund

According to religious tradition, the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an (meaning “recitation”), is the Word of God, related in its original Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.

In the early years of Islam, the words were transmitted orally from person to person, with bits and pieces written down unsystematically. Only later was the text collated, codified, and set down on paper in its entirety. Thanks to this, copying the Qur’an is regarded as a pious act, and even in the very first centuries of Islam, calligraphy, the art of the written word, was exalted as a sacred art form. Early Qur’ans were written with hijazi script or the stricter, more formal style known as kufic that developed afterward.

In Qur’ans from Northern Africa and Islamic Spain, the calligraphic script used, known as maghribi, has its own distinct look, style, composition, and, often, coloration. Maghribi, or “western” script, can be seen in this example of a Qur’an leaf dating to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. As is characteristic of this style, there is an emphasis here on extending the horizontal elements of letters, and certain diacritical marks are made in blue or green.

Gold leaf has been applied in Qur’an manuscripts since as early as the eighth century. The three ornate gold medallions on this page mark the breaks between verses. The calligrapher has decorated the large one with organic, plant-inspired patterns, while the two smaller ones feature a more geometrical linear design. The line in gold at the top identifies the chapter, or sura, of the page’s text. The beautiful, thick gold script is carefully edged in red, adding to the visual richness of this important heading.

Expert Perspective:
Adriana Proser, Curator of Traditional Asian Art, Asia Society

“Traditionally, the way a student of Islamic calligraphy would have studied would have been with a master. And after years and years of practicing, ultimately, a student is awarded a certificate and then can practice as a professional.

There are many numbers of different script types that a student needs to master first before they can actually go out on their own as a professional calligrapher. This is true in the Islamic world and true in the East Asian world as well that once you get to the point that you have really mastered a number of scripts, you mastered the styles of great calligraphers, then you’re at a point that maybe you can go out and create something out of your own. There are a number of existing standard kinds of scripts. When they become skilled enough calligraphers can actually play around with those and come up with hybrid styles that mix different elements from different places.

In the Islamic world, calligraphy is considered the highest form of art. It’s tied to the writing of the Qur’an; it’s tied to the fact that it’s a transcription of the word of God. It’s so full of the spiritual power and embellishing it in this way is a way of celebrating it. The Qur’an is a document that tends to be chanted. So in a way it really does have a musical quality to it and the calligrapher is trying to capture that sense of the spoken word of God.

One Qur’an would, in its totality, have been written by one calligrapher. It was considered an incredible act of piety to write out a whole Qur’an. It’s such an incredibly rich tradition. It’s certainly an art form that if you don’t understand it and you see it, you can still appreciate it as an abstract art. But it’s so deep in terms of the meaning and the history and what’s going on underneath those strokes or what’s entailed in the creation of those strokes.”

Additional Resources

Baker, Colin F. Qur’an Manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design.London: The British Library, 2007.

Blair, Sheila S. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Bloom, Jonathan, and Sheila S. Blair. Islamic Arts. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

“Leaf from a Qur’an manuscript [Attributed to Spain] (42.63).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2006).

Leaman, Oliver, ed. The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. London: Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Roxburgh, David J. Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an.Houston: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, 2008.

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