Communication – the transmission of emotion – is an elementary part of being human. Spread across the earth, we are tethered together by the gift of language. When the spoken word first began to be preserved through writing, it not only made those veritable connections a lasting one, it also made emotion visible with the very art of how it was conserved. Calligraphy’s ubiquity lies at the intersection of this need to preserve memory and the human affinity for beauty. Similar to any piece of quality art, it aims to invoke a deep response, communicating with the viewer on both a linguistic and creative level.
Over the course of history, the instruments used to immortalise moments and knowledge were created from whatever tools were available. This varied between the pith of the papyrus plant and a bird’s feather, to chisels and stone tablets. The ancient art of calligraphy traces its roots back to China as early as the 3rd century BC during the Shang dynasty when writing was often carved on turtle shells or animal bones to eternalise poetry and state propaganda. Chinese calligraphy was encapsulated in imagery through brush strokes and writing was slanted to fit to proportion, giving rise to the earliest form of cursive script.
By the 7th century, religion and the safeguarding of sacred texts perpetuated the rise of calligraphy across the Middle East and Europe with Islamic calligraphy strongly tied to the Holy Qur’an, and Western calligraphy largely focused on hand copying Biblical texts. Due to Islam’s veneration of the written word of Allah, the Arabic script began to be highly regarded as an art form itself to the extent that it began to considered as the highest art form that it might be worthy of divine revelation. Thus, calligraphy’s prominence grew and over time became a crucial element in Islamic ornamentation. Architecture, decoration, fashion and coin design were filled with elaborate designs inspired from calligraphy. Rich Arabic works of art went on to create great impact in the improvement of arts all over the world, largely influencing cultures such as Andalusia in Spain and multiple art styles such as the Baroque and Rococo art movements in Europe.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries, a revived interest into the origins of culture and language has nurtured a systematic enquiry into historical texts. Alongside palaeography and philology, scholars are meticulously reconstructing how the past has preserved and transmitted its thoughts to the present by hand. The renewed lens on handwriting also delves into the sublime messages incorporated in the stroke of pen to paper. The flow and ebb of emotion transmitted through an individual hand produces a very different aesthetic to the one invoked by the world of moveable typefaces. As Jon Marcus, head of Education for The New York Times, wrote in an article for Medium – ‘Handwriting means experiencing authenticity’. The evocative nature of the calligraphic script has today found representation in modern society as an ‘applied art’. Whether through sign-writing, wood-carving, plaques, formal invitations, typography or graffiti – the impact of calligraphy and its allure of ancient history and mystery is visible all around us.
Today, as lifestyle and wellness trends decidedly orient themselves towards balance, self-recognition and living in harmony with oneself and the environment, calligraphy has found yet a new purpose and relevance as a medium for well-being. Its ability to stimulate neuronal activity, increase our haptic perception, and give us pause to appreciate and reflect combats the loss of tactile experiences and advent of stress rendered by electronic devices. From scrolls to art to advertising, calligraphy’s impact on society has lasted centuries and continues to reinvent itself in modern visual communication.
Ayet El-Korsy (The Throne Verse) from the holy Quran drawn with Arabic Calligraphy in a horse shape – photo courtesy of flickr
Calligraphy means beautiful writing and comes from the Greek “καλλιγραφία” words “beauty” (Kallos) and “to write” (Graphein). When the fifth century Greek sculptor Polykleitos wrote his Canon on beauty, he declared that beauty lies in the proportion of one part to another and of all the parts to the whole. While Arabic calligraphy puts an emphasis on proportion, brush calligraphy (practiced in China and Japan) seeks out balance. Many characters have complex structures, while others are simple in form. Today, modern calligraphy is considered to be any type of calligraphy that doesn’t follow the structural rules of traditional calligraphy styles (such as Copperplate, Spencerian, Italic, Blackletter, etc.). Traditional styles, have been developed over time and are meant to be an exact science. Each letter has a specific height, angle, measurement, and tool(s) required to accomplish it.
And it’s only considered to be indicative of that particular style if the letter matches these requirements precisely. Arabic calligraphy also evolved over time into two distinct families: Kufic, which became the standard for sacred scripts and was characterized by angular, rectilinear letterforms and a horizontal orientation and Naskh, representative of the more modern and easily decipherable rounded scripts.