The Art of the Word, Dr. Eléonore Cellard

Writing is above all a tool for transmitting a text. Can it also be considered an artistic expression?

Arabic script is a great example to illustrate this point. It reflects as many aesthetic expressions as the number of regions in which it is written. Let us observe, for example, the peculiarities of the Maghribi style, used in the Maghreb from the 10th century CE, or the originality of the Bihari style in the manuscripts made in India in the 15th century. These writing styles all convey a single text: the Qur’an, but there is a striking contrast between this textual unicity and its formal diversity. This variety of forms is an expression of a specific place, a time, and a community. And sometimes, of a particular calligrapher or his patron ...

What are the aesthetics of Kufic script?

Long before the birth of these calligraphic styles, a style of writing called “Kufic” prevailed for several centuries on monumental inscriptions, coins and Qur’anic manuscripts. The Kufic script takes its name from the 15th century Arabic literature and describes a system of ancient, angular, stiff characters that originated in – or was used in - the city of Kufa. In other words, it appears that a single style was used in a range of media and for different purposes. In fact, the Kufic script reflects aesthetic variations as rich as those between the Maghribi and Bihari styles.

Within this broad Kufic stylistic family, variations may have been expressed in the thickness of a line, from thin, uniform drawings to far heavier script. In some specimens, the lines are up to 2 centimeters wide, with a striking contrast between thicker and thinner strokes. We can infer that quills (qalam) and the ways of trimming their nibs changed from one script to another.

Variations may also have involved lengthening the letters by pushing horizontal lines to the limits of the writing area (mashq) or superimposing vertical strokes.

Kufic script (D.I), Paris BnF Arabe 350, f.170a


Aesthetics may also have been expressed through various inks and colored pigments. The Qur’anic text is nearly always written using a black ink that has been identified as a metal-gall ink known for its durability, while colored pigments are reserved for paratextual elements such as titles or vocalization.

Kufic script (D.Vc), SBB, 8v


There are a few exceptions, however. Among the Qur’an manuscripts found in the Damascus Umayyad Great Mosque, rare specimens reveal a complex, impressive combination of red, green and black inks that alternate in geometrical patterns. Other deluxe copies are written entirely with gold leaf, such as the famous Blue Qur’an, many of whose folios were discovered in Kairouan.

The Blue Qur’an, Gold ink on dyed parchment, IMA


Do these aesthetic variations reflect different stages of development or production sites?

Unfortunately, most ancient Qur’an manuscripts are now reduced to fragments scattered around the world among museums, libraries or private collections. They bear no dates, no places of production, or names of calligraphers or patrons. Only an in-depth analysis of these manuscripts can help to reveal the secrets of these variations. First, by situating them at a precise moment during the Umayyad or the Abbasid era. Second, by localizing areas of production and circulation paths.

Kufic style (B.II). Diacritical system, vowels and binding pointing to Maghreb. Paris, BnF Arabe 6982, f.2a

Kufic manuscripts sometimes carry material evidence that they later circulated in the Maghreb or Eastern lands. Is there a link between these places and the manuscripts’ origins? How far did they travel from where they were produced? Could we imagine that their stylistic variations are expressions of local circumstances of production? Anyway, the city of Kufa who gave birth to the Kufic script is far back in time and space from these examples. Is an original specimen from this city even preserved today? This we hope to find out someday.

Dr. Eléonore Cellard is specialist in Qur’ānic manuscripts. She started her research activities in 2008, under the supervision of François Déroche. In 2015, she submitted her dissertation intitled “The written transmission of the Qur’ān. Study of a corpus of manuscripts from the 2nd H./8th CE” (INALCO/EPHE). Until 2018, she carried on her research at the Collège de France, as research assistant and post-doctoral researcher. Involved first in the French-German Coranica project, then in the Paleocoran project, she published Codex Amrensis 1, the first volume of the collection of facsimile and diplomatic editions of the earliest Qur’ans (Brill, 2018).

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