In the Beginning was the Word: The Written Word As Art

Featured String: In the Beginning was The Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.


Writing has been with the human race since at least 5400 years ago, and it’s cropped up independently in more than one culture. Apparently one thing our ancestors shared was a desire to record things for posterity, even when what they were recording was a complaint.

Some themes arose almost immediately: that written words were “more official” somehow than spoken words (due to their permanence), that they could be holy and sacred, and that useful writing systems might travel into different cultures.

Many systems seem to have begun as representations of real-life things or symbols of concepts that would have been immediately recognisible to people, that then became stylised. Others very cleverly mimicked the shape it feels like the speaker is making when they say each sound or word.

The power of written words to continue after the writer had departed, or to travel far beyond the reach of the writer, completely unchanged, must have seemed immensely powerful to early man, and even in more recent history, the writing of names of gods was considered a particularly important act. Katherine Lomas, for example, relates how Etruscan shrines were littered with votive offerings of low value which had names inscribed into them–immediately increasing their worth in a time when writing was associated with the very wealthy.

But people haven’t limited their uses of writing to plain form accountancy, lawgiving, and votive offering; the written word has been the source of some exquisite and breathtaking art.

Calligraphy (literally “beautiful writing”, from the Greek) has several different traditions and uses, all linked in some way to the values of the culture each one arose in.


Of all the calligraphic forms the world has produced, the diverse word-art and calligraphic decoration associated with the written form of Arabic and used throughout the Islamic world is perhaps the most varied and awe-inspiring.



Dish made of porcelain with Arabic calligraphy consisting of the ‘shahada’ (the Islamic profession of faith) carved into the surface of the dish twice, Wasma’a Chorbachi (1991)

There are several forms of text for writing in Arabic, but Kufic script was the first to be made “consciously beautiful“, a deliberate move to glorify the holy texts it was now responsible for recording, with an appropriately exquisite vessel. To put that more plainly, Arabic’s written form (of which there are five major cursive types: Naskh, Nasta’liq, Diwani, Thuluth, and Ruq’ah) was developed to its current standard because of the Qur’an.

It was not solely the desire to glorify the words of god that led to the creation of exquisite forms of calligraphy that used solely the layering of words and shaping of words to create forms and decoration that have no parallels in other cultures, however. A prohibition on making images of Allah or Mohammed, interpreted in later periods as a prohibition on making images of any part of Allah’s creation, met with the basic human need for decoration and beauty, and created an art form in which meaning lay, literally, in every line.

The phrase Bismillah in an 18th-century Islamic calligraphy from the Ottoman region and called Thuluth

Becoming a master at Arabic calligraphy has traditionally required years of dilligent apprenticeship and a commitment to producing work which is functionally identical to those of the masters.

Exploration in form and combination with the advanced and breath-taking geometric patterns that also grew up as a result of a tradition opposed to figurative (representational) art, created an art-form entirely unknown in the West which continues to evolve in the age of digital typography.

One equally complex and resolutely hostile-to-digital typography scriptual form comes not from written Arabic, but from an anti-colonial movement in the northern part of Pentecost Island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu.

Drawing inspiration from traditional sand drawings, Chief Viraleo Boborenvanua of the Turaga indigenous movement spent fourteen years developing the script for the Raga language (the word “avoiuli” comes from the Raga words avoi, or “talk about” and uli, “draw” or “paint”) as part of the movement’s aim to reduce the island’s dependence on and therefore vulnerability to outside influences.

The script is also remarkable in its resolutely cursive nature: like the culture’s sand drawings, letters are designed so words can be executed in a single stroke — and as such it opposes the current digital trend of dividing words into individual key-strokes.



Beginning with carved and scratched letters in the Greek and Latin alphabets, made in wax and in wood and stone, or with runes in the north (again, often carved), Western writing was at its outset often laborious. Paper was fragile; cloth expensive. European Christianity, in pursuit of circulating the Bible and associated texts (as well as bestiaries, medical texts, and even cookbooks) among the few members of the population who were literate, settled on the use of parchment–preserved animal hide–to create durable works.

Marginalia (notes from the margins) from old texts copied by monks give us a pretty good idea of what the problems were with that: “the parchment is very hairy”. With dark winters and cloudy weather, and no reliable non-natural source of light, copying was often a slow and tedious task (beset by, among other things, “the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night“).

For books to be circulated amongst monasteries, legibility was of the utmost importance. Clear, clean pen-strokes were achieved through the use of cut quills and pen nibs–accurate, but much less flexible, and of little use in creating the kind of smooth, flowing calligraphy produced in the Middle and Far East. Scratchy parchment probably didn’t help much either!

But for the Word of God, and for gifts of value to important patrons (bishops, kings, and so on), “clarity” just wasn’t enough. The solution:

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the incipit from the Gospel of Matthew.

Illumination provided relief from the uniformity of legible lettering and turned plain text into colourful, absorbing works of art. Some illuminations used patterns around or within the lettering, as these do: others sent illustrations of beasts and people and places and demons dancing through the text, or handed them their own pages (sometimes featuring images of either the book’s patron or their heraldry).

Many monasteries made an absolute fortune for the church from their high-quality copying.

It wasn’t just Christian Europe that created beautiful, illustrated biblical texts, either. In Al-Andalus, Umayyid Iberia, evidence of the caliphate’s cosmopolitan approach to rule emerged in the form of a bible, illuminated with micrographic Hebrew (micrography was a distinctly Jewish calligraphic tradition at the time), produced in Islamic Spain by a Jewish calligrapher and illustrator who, unlike Christian and Islamic copyists, proudly put his name to his complex and fantastically inventive work: Joseph ibn Hayyim.

With the rise of first woodblock printing (arriving from China in Europe during the 13th century), and later the revolutionary development of movable type, the creation of illuminated and laboriously-created calligraphic manuscripts began to diminish (particularly in countries where monasteries were abolished or ransacked during the European Reformation).

More than calligraphy, the modern West has eagerly embraced the aesthetic possibilities of typography–still valuing speed and uniformity as fertile limitations on creative expression, rather than tradition.

East Asian

Surangama Sutra, Kim Ch’ung-hyon (18th Century)

The written form of Chinese was created more than 3, 000 years ago. Instead of being related to the sounds the spoken language made, it related to ideas, stylised into “pictograms” and “ideagraphs”–making the written form easy to export to other nearby cultures whose spoken languages were not the same.

Chinese pictograph


Over the centuries the script developed in response to the introduction of new technologies and needs, in particular the development of the brush and ink method of writing upon paper, believed to have been developed during the Han Dynasty. Xingshu and caoshu scripts were responses to the aesthetic potential of brush-based writing, and the final standard kaishu script retains the flicks and angled shapes of brush-marks even when it is printed.

Paper is significantly easier to write on than parchment, and brushes more flexible than pen nibs and cut quills. The resultant writing form was something smooth, flowing, and exercised with control–harmony and precision. Reflecting core principles in the society, calligraphy came to be considered a hallmark of personal character and competitive calligraphy was a fine art-form. Indeed, calligraphy is considered as one of the four best friends of ancient Chinese literati: the others are playing stringed musical instruments, the complex game “go”, and painting.

During the Heian Period in Japan, when the country’s elites were eagerly importing Chinese cultual mores and arts, calligraphy also began to assume popularity among the literate and wealthy aristocratic classes. Korea, which historically had a close relationship with China, produced many highly-regarded calligraphers working in Chinese hanja; although Korea’s native script of Hangul was developed in the mid-15th century (during the Joseon Dynasty) and intended for use in writing both Chinese and Korean, it was not treated with much official respect or elevated to calligraphy until after the peninsula’s liberation from Japanese occupation in the 20th Century.

The continued popularity of calligraphy in East Asia is a strong contrast to the West, where progress in technology has been linked with the rejection of traditional skills; although printing was originally invented in China, it never superseded calligraphy in the minds of the cultural elite due to an emphasis on the value of the act of writing as well as the completed object.

The Sacred Words

The oldest known date printed book still surviving, a version of the Diamond Sutra, printed in 886CE, dramatically precedes the introduction of mass-printed books in the West; but calligraphy flourished alongside block-printed books and continues to be practiced to high standards alongside digital and print publications.

The sanctity of the written word permeates faiths of all kinds. The actual lettering of the Torah, for example, should not be touched by human hands. The written words of the Qur’an, mus-haf (lit. “the pages”) must not be touched by anyone who is not clean, or has not been purified. The printed text of the Qur’an in Arabic is regarded as holy in itself and should not be altered. Treatment of the Bible, meanwhile, varies from sect to sect; for Protestant and non-conformist Christians, to venerate the book itself would be idolatry–a sin. For Eastern Christians, the book itself has important value and should be treated accordingly, maintaining an elevated position and covered with a cloth when not being read.

An old torn paper with a painting depicting the Mahabharata war, with some verses recorded in Sanskrit.

A manuscript illustration of the battle of Kurukshetra, fought between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, recorded in the Mahabharata.

Modern Interpretation

Rachid Koraïchi takes the tradition of aesthetics and meaning combining beyond legibility in much modern Islamic calligraphic art and evolves it again. Trained as a Q’ranic copyist from a family of Sufi copyists and calligraphers, the Algerian artist has retained a strong spiritual connection to the power of the written word that sparked a fascination with all forms of writing.

A wrought iron sculpture in the form of a free-standing calligraphic figure, Rachid Koraïchi, [part of the 2004 ‘Path of Roses’ installation]

Koraïchi’s work spans several different mediums: the connecting element is usually the use of written words or word-like shapes, which raises interesting questions about how we identify what is and isn’t ‘writing’. Academic and archaeological ideas about what constitutes writing when looking at antiquity and marks on stone are guided by a different set of thinking; but there is an instinct in literate people (and even illiterate people living in literate societies) to identify writing and meaningful visual patterns without ever having been exposed to a specific unknown alphabet before.

Koraïchi turns a calligrapher’s eye to the concept of an individual glyph (a glyph is either a letter, a word, or a pictogram depending on what the “units of meaning” are in a given writing system) and produces fusions of different cultural and linguistic writing shapes, asking us project meaning into the sculpture as our instinct tells us to wherever there is something like writing.

People on the whole love a mystery language. The 240-year-old riddle of the untranslated and presumed encoded Voynich Manuscript is a great example of this. Not only have linguists chipped away at the problem of its root language and the cipher used to encoded it for years, but experts in other disciplines from botany to gaming studies have had the opportunity to project their own understanding of texts into the space created by the untranslatable but evidently meaningful text–the mystery has sparked imagination in several forms.

Other, less historical works in untranslatable text exert a similar sway over the imagination. Although the hallucinogenically weird illustrations are the main draw of the 1981 publication Codex Seraphianus (a fantastical work which seems in some respects to be a fictional encyclopedia from a completely alien dimension, and which has tonal similarities with some of Hieronymous Bosch‘s odder paintings), it is also written in an unknown script in a constructed language–even the page numbering system is unreal.

Image result for codex seraphinianus

Codex Seraphianus, Luigi Serafini

From the sublime to the ridiculous: I’m going to close with an example of how calligraphic arts are used by a witty, foul-mouthed Millennial to marry the sensibilities of the present with an art tradition of the long past: The Shitpost Calligrapher.


“Spiders Georg”, The Shitpost Calligrapher

As with street art, what we choose to preserve and elevate in calligraphy might well seem mundane and inexplicable to some audiences but there will always be someone who finds this intersection between the beauty of the medium and the absurdity of the message to be exactly what they were looking for.


If you’ve had your curiosity piqued on the subject of studying writing systems instead of calligraphy, the words you want to look up are “graphetics” or “graphemics“.

See the @artstring profile for more informative, entertaining, or passionate strings.

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