Art Through Time: A Global View
Writing Art: The Five Scrolls
Talented and prolific, Aaron Wolf Herlingen of Gewitsch belonged to a group of Jewish manuscript artists who flourished in Central Europe in the eighteenth century.
Among the most admired works of this master scribe and calligrapher is his version of the Five Scrolls (or Hamesh Megillot), which consists of a single, illustrated sheet containing text from five books of the Hebrew Bible—Ecclesiastes, Esther, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Lamentations. Herlingen created his Five Scrolls written in four languages (Hebrew, Latin, German, and French) in 1748, while employed at the Imperial Library in Vienna.
Four small, monochrome vignettes in circular frames adorn Herlingen’s Five Scrolls. These illustrations, depicting the Judgment of Solomon, Solomon Enthroned, Mordecai before Ahasuerus, and Ruth and Boaz in the Field, were strongly influenced by the engravings found in printed books of the period. However, the real art in the Five Scrolls is perhaps the tiny lettering, known as micrography, with which Herlingen writes the main portion of the text and other information identifying himself and the origin of the work.
Micrography is a unique Jewish art form that dates back to at least the ninth century CE. Passed down from scribe to scribe, it spread from Egypt south to Yemen and north to Europe. The art of micrography employs writing so small that it is generally illegible and relies on the placement of text to create the outlines of either images or decorative patterns. As is characteristic of the form, in Herlingen’s work, carefully positioned lines of text form the ornamental border and white passages dividing the sheet into discrete segments. Micrography is part of a tradition in Judaism that tends to shy away from figurative representation in favor of art that focuses on the word as the embodiment of sacred history and teachings.
Sharon Liberman Mintz, Curator of Jewish Art, Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary
“There’s a very interesting Jewish art form known as micrography—‘micro’ meaning small, ‘graphic’ meaning script. And it’s the art of taking text, writing it in minute, minute letters, and creating beautiful decorative pages out of this micrographic text. So they would use often the Masorah, which is a body of information that ensured the correct transmission of the biblical text, and they would take the words of the Masorah and they would form them into geometric patterns, floral patterns, hunt scenes, all kinds of beautiful, beautiful, elaborate page embellishments. And this is something that we find almost uniquely in Hebrew manuscripts.
The rabbis were less than excited about using the text of the Masorah for this micrographic technique because the Masorah is there—it’s a body of information handed down, which tells you how words should be spelled in the Bible—whether they include certain letters or they don’t, how many times it appears. And this kind of ensures that the Bible gets written correctly over the course of hundreds and even thousands of years. When you form it into micrographic text you can no longer read it. It becomes sort of impossible to follow what it’s saying. So we actually have responsa from the rabbi saying, ‘If you hire a scribe and you’re going to pay him to write a bible for you, make sure that he does not form the words of the Masorah into these decorative trees and flowers and birds because you will no longer be able to use the Masorah for what it’s there for.’ This was observed in the breach more than anything else. It’s clear that the rabbis felt that the reading was primary. It’s not entirely clear that the patrons felt that the reading was primary.”
“Bizarre Perfection.” The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Web site. http://www.imj.org.il
Fishof, Iris, ed. Jewish Art Masterpieces from the Israel Museum. Westport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin in association with the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1994.
“Micrography: The Hebrew Word as Art.” The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary Web site. http://www.jtsa.edu
Soltes, Ori Z. Our Sacred Signs. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2005.