“Say it!” the angel Gabriel commanded Muhammad, who had been chosen to channel the message of Allah to mankind. “Write it,” the angel might have said, because the words the prophet recited became a book, the Koran. And in the hands of artists over the centuries that book became a devotional object of surpassing beauty.
NY Times: The Art of Calligraphy
October 11, 2008
The art of the book and the art of writing are the subjects of paired exhibitions at Asia Society, “Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, Circa 1600-1900” and “Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an.” Perfect in size and proportion, carefully thought out and gorgeous, they are worthy of the book they honor.
Gorgeous is important. Precious jewels should be superbly cut and set. Many would say that the word of God is the most precious jewel of all. “Traces of the Calligrapher” is about how that word was packaged for earthly consumption. Basically, the show is a manual of fine handwriting and luxury bookmaking, illustrated by superb examples of tools of the trade and finished products.
No tool was more essential than the ink pen. From the time the first Korans were written in the seventh century, a traditional kind of pen was preferred, one made of a plain, dried, hollow reed, cut at the end to form a nib. Yet when it came to the holy book, nothing was ever really plain. Every aspect of its production took on symbolic weight.
The pen was an emblem for the creation of the cosmos, when primal matter issued forth from God like ink on a page. Its use had ethical implications. The skill with which a calligrapher trimmed the nib — ideally with a single, deft knife stroke — was assumed to say everything about his force of character.
Calligraphers were not regarded as ordinary artisans. They were members of a subculture with its own set of aesthetic codes and foundation myths and often with strong connections to Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam still too little understood in the West.
Exalted as it was, the pen came with sumptuous accoutrements. Knives used to trim it were fitted with ivory, agate or coral handles. Small flat objects, called maktas, originally bits of stone on which the pen rested when cut, were transformed into miniature sculptures of walrus tusk and gold.
Parchment was used for early Korans. Then paper became common and inspired yet another line of ornate and ingenious instruments, evident in the show.
Scissors from 18th-century Iran fold into a sleek, compact dart shape, rounded at the top and pierced with pinpoint fine openwork patterns. The finger holes of a large pair of scissors made in Ottoman Turkey form calligraphic characters that spell out one of the names of God. With every slice, the idea is, you say a prayer.
Over time, an entire industry of calligraphic accessories flourished, from pen-cases and ink wells inlaid with tortoise shell, ebony and mother-of-pearl to an Ikea’s worth of specialized furniture, including calligrapher’s tables as ornate as altars.
Most sensuous of all were book covers of tooled and gilded leather, or painted and lacquered pasteboard. Many Koran covers had abstract decorations, but on one Iranian example roses and tulips palpitate against a hot-red ground as if drawing vitality from the writing they enclosed and protected.
Writing — the written word — was the essential thing. If “Traces of the Calligrapher,” organized by Mary McWilliams and David J. Roxburgh of Harvard University, is primarily an ensemble of the instruments that produced it, the show also evokes calligraphy as a physical act.
A film of the American-born master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya at work is a mesmerizing part of the show. So are the wall texts that describe stages of calligraphic training. Hands-on study entails the preparation of materials and the mastery of pen techniques.
But it begins with a prolonged contemplation of existing calligraphy, a total immersion in the written word, which means keeping it in front of your eye, living with it, absorbing its particular pulses and energies before attempting to send your own version out into the world.
The second and smaller of the two shows, “Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur’an,” affords something like this experience. It is a deep-end dive into writing and its history.
Two parchment sheets, their edges nibbled away by time, date to the seventh century, when Islam was new. The words that crowd every inch of surface might even have been copied during the prophet’s lifetime. At that early date, though, the word of Allah was customarily presented as Muhammad had presented it: orally. The manuscript at Asia Society was probably a kind of prompt-book for recitations.
But very quickly, copies of the Koran became primary objects, esteemed for their beauty as well as their content. Stretched-out Arabic letters on a single surviving page from an eighth century Koran have the stop-start rhythms of a music score. And on a page from a different copy the same script appears in gold on a rich midnight-blue ground.
Expressive new script styles developed: Eastern Kufic with characters tall, thin and slightly flexed like blades of grass in a field; Maghribi from North Africa, with its flourishes of downward lines, like roots reaching into desert subsoil.
Ornament entered the picture: red and green accent marks; verse markers in the form of fat gold knots; and in a 15th- or 16th-century page, a teardrop-shaped medallion, ripe and showy, floating in the margin. And the later books bring us back around to secular examples of calligraphy in the first show.
In an early 17th-century composition, the strokes forming the letters of a poem about a celestial garden are filled with tiny birds and flowers. An imperial degree ordering that generous wages be paid to an artist is topped by what looks like a Christmas tree.
And a third sheet refers to just such an artist in the making. It is a calligraphy student’s graduation certificate, with writing in different sizes and scripts, by the student himself. His work looks more than confident; his teachers have signed off on it; clearly, he is ready to start a career.
Just for luck, though, he adds a prayer: “O Lord, make things easy and do not make them difficult. Make everything come out well.”