You must write a 4 page summary/ analysis of each “Part”/ section. This should have an introduction, main body (summary), and conclusion. In your conclusion spend time analyzing why the chapter is significant to the history of graphic design. You must include a handful of images in your analysis to support your summary. You are able to focus on any area of the section to summarize; I will leave that up to your personal interests and discretion.
You must FIRST summarize the section as a whole and SECOND address how you see the influence present within contemporary design and how it’s significant to the history of graphic design.
Part I the Prologue to Graphic Design The visual message from prehistory through the medieval era:
01 The Invention of Writing
03 The Asian Contribution
04 Illuminated Manuscripts
Meggs, Philip B.; Purvis, Alston W. (2011-11-02). Meggs’ History of Graphic Design-Wiley. Kindle Edition.
1 The Invention of Writing
It is not known precisely when or where Homo sapiens, the biological species of conscious, thinking creatures, emerged. As the search for our prehistoric origins continues, the early innovations of our ancestors have been pushed back further in time. It is believed that we evolved from a species that lived in the southern part of Africa. These early hominids ventured out onto the grassy plains and into caves as the forests in that part of the world slowly disappeared. In the tall grass, the hominids began to stand erect. Perhaps this adaptation was a result of the need to watch for predators, to help discourage enemies by increasing the hominids’ apparent size, or to hold branches as weapons. In any event, the hand developed an ability to carry food and hold objects. Found near Lake Turkana in Kenya, a nearly three-million-year-old stone that had been sharpened into an implement proves the thoughtful and deliberate development of a technology—a tool. Early shaped stones may have been used to dig for roots or to cut away flesh from dead animals for food. While we can only speculate about the use of early tools, we know that they mark a major step in the human species’ immense journey from primitive origins toward a civilized state. A number of quantum leaps provided the capacity to organize a community and gain some measure of control over human destiny. Speech—the ability to make sounds in order to communicate—was an early skill developed by the species on the long evolutionary trail from its archaic beginnings. Writing is the visual counterpart of speech. Marks, symbols, pictures, or letters drawn or written upon a surface or substrate became a graphic counterpart of the spoken word or unspoken thought. The limitations of speech include the fallibility of human memory and an immediacy of expression that cannot transcend time and place. Until the electronic age, spoken words vanished without a trace, while written words remained. The invention of writing brought people the luster of civilization and made it possible to preserve hard-won knowledge, experiences, and thoughts. The development of writing and visible language had its earliest origins in simple pictures, for a close connection exists between the drawing of pictures and the marking of writing. Both are natural ways of communicating ideas, and early people used pictures as an elementary way to record and transmit information.
Prehistoric visual communications
Early human markings found in Africa are over two hundred thousand years old. From the early Paleolithic to the Neolithic period (35,000 to 4000 BCE), early Africans and Europeans left paintings in caves, including the Lascaux caves in southern France (Fig. 1-1) and Altamira in Spain. Black was made from charcoal, and a range of warm tones, from light yellows through red-browns, were made from red and yellow iron oxides. This palette of pigments was mixed with fat as a medium. Images of animals were drawn and painted upon the walls of these former subterranean water channels occupied as a refuge by prehistoric men and women. Perhaps the pigment was smeared onto the walls with a finger, or a brush was fabricated from bristles or reeds. This was not the beginning of art as we know it. Rather, it was the dawning of visual communications, because these early pictures were made for survival and for utilitarian and ritualistic purposes. The presence of what appear to be spear marks in the sides of some of these animal images indicates that they were used in magical rites designed to gain power over animals and success in the hunt.
Abstract geometric signs, including dots, squares, and other configurations, are intermingled with the animals in many cave paintings. Whether they represent man-made objects or are protowriting is not known, and never will be, because they were made before the beginning of recorded history (the five-thousand-year period during which people have recorded in writing a chronicle of their knowledge of facts and events). The animals painted in the caves are pictographs—elementary pictures or sketches that represent the things depicted.
Throughout the world, from Africa to North America to the islands of New Zealand, prehistoric people left numerous petroglyphs (Fig. 1-2), which are carved or scratched signs or simple figures on rock. Many of the petroglyphs are pictographs, and some may be ideographs, or symbols to represent ideas or concepts. (Fig. 1-3) A high level of observation and memory is evidenced in many prehistoric drawings. In an engraved reindeer antler found in the cave of Lorthet in southern France (Fig. 1-4), the scratched drawings of deer and salmon are remarkably accurate. Even more important, however, are two diamond-shaped forms with interior marks, which imply an early symbol-making ability. The early pictographs evolved in two ways: first, they were the beginning of pictorial art—the objects and events of the world were recorded with increasing fidelity and exactitude as the centuries passed; second, they formed the basis of writing. The images, regardless of whether the original pictorial form was retained, ultimately became symbols for spoken-language sounds.
The Paleolithic artist developed a tendency toward simplification and stylization. Figures became increasingly abbreviated and were expressed with a minimum number of lines. By the late Paleolithic period, some petroglyphs andpictographs had been reduced to the point of almost resembling letters.
The cradle of civilization
Until recent discoveries indicated that early peoples in Thailand may have practiced agriculture and manufactured pottery at an even earlier date, archaeologists had long believed that the ancient land of Mesopotamia, “the land between rivers,” was the cradle of civilization. Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow from the mountains of eastern Turkey across the land that is now Iraq and into the Persian Gulf, there lies a flat, once-fertile plain whose wet winters and hot, dry summers proved very attractive to early human culture. Here, early humans ceased their restless nomadic wanderings and established a village society. Around 8000 BCE, wild grain was planted, animals were domesticated, and agriculture began. By the year 6000 BCE, objects were being hammered from copper; the Bronze Age was ushered in about 3000 BCE, when copper was alloyed with tin to make durable tools and weapons. The invention of the wheel followed.
The leap from village culture to high civilization occurred after the Sumerian people arrived in Mesopotamia near the end of the fourth millennium BCE. The origin of the Sumerians—who settled in the lower part of the Fertile Crescent before 3000 BCE—remains a great mystery. As vital as the technologies developed in Mesopotamia were for the future of the human race, the Sumerians’ contribution to social and intellectual progress had even more impact upon the future. The Sumerians invented a system of gods headed by a supreme deity named Anu, who was the god of the heavens. An intricate system of god-man relationships was developed. The city emerged, with the necessary social order for large numbers of people to live together. But of the numerous inventions in Sumer that launched people onto the path of civilization, the invention of writing brought about an intellectual revolution that had a vast impact upon social order, economic progress, and technological and future cultural developments.
The history of Mesopotamia records waves of invaders who conquered the peoples living there. The culture established by the Sumerians conquered the invaders in turn, and the sequence of ruling peoples who dominated Mesopotamia during its long history includes Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Chaldeans. Persians from the west and Hittites from the north also conquered the area and spread Mesopotamian civilization beyond the Fertile Crescent.
The earliest writing
Religion dominated life in the Mesopotamian city-state, just as the massive ziggurat, a stepped temple compound, dominated the city. Its vast, multistory brick temples were constructed as a series of recessed levels, becoming smaller toward the top of the shrine. Inside, priests and scribes wielded enormous power, as they controlled the inventories of the gods and the king and ministered to the magical and religious needs of the people. Writing may have evolved because this temple economy had an increasing need for record keeping. The temple chiefs consciously sought a system for recording information.
In human memory, time can become a blur, and important facts are often forgotten. In Mesopotamian terms, such important facts might include the answers to questions like: Who delivered their taxes in the form of crops? How much food was stored, and was it adequate to meet community needs before the next harvest? As even these relatively simple questions show, an accurate continuum of knowledge became imperative if the temple priests were to be able to maintain the order and stability necessary in the city-state. One theory holds that the origin of visible language evolved from the need to identify the contents of sacks and pottery containers used to store food. Small clay tags were made that identified the contents with a pictograph, and the amount with an elementary decimal numbering system based on the ten human fingers.
The earliest written records are tablets that apparently list commodities by pictographic drawings of objects accompanied by numerals and personal names inscribed in orderly columns (Figs. 1-5 and 1-6). An abundance of clay in Sumer made it the logical material for record keeping, and a reed stylus sharpened to a point was used to draw the fine, curved lines of the early pictographs. The clay mud tablet was held in the left hand, and pictographs were scratched in the surface with the wooden stylus. Beginning in the top right corner of the tablet, the lines were written in careful vertical columns. The inscribed tablet was then dried in the hot sun or baked rock-hard in a kiln.
This writing system underwent an evolution over several centuries. Writing was structured on a grid of horizontal and vertical spatial divisions. Sometimes the scribe would smear the writing as his hand moved across the tablet. Around 2800 BCE scribes turned the pictographs on their sides and began to write in horizontal rows, from left to right and top to bottom (Fig. 1-7). This made writing easier, and it made the pictographs less literal. About three hundred years later, writing speed was increased by replacing the sharp-pointed stylus with a triangular-tipped one. This stylus was pushed into the clay instead of being dragged through it.
The characters were now composed of a series of wedge-shaped strokes rather than a continuous line drawing (Figs. 1-8, 1-9, 1-10, 1-11, 1-12, 1-13). This innovation radically altered the nature of the writing; pictographs evolved into an abstract sign writing called cuneiform (from the Latin for “wedge-shaped”).
While the graphic form of Sumerian writing was evolving, its ability to record information was expanding. From the first stage, when picture-symbols represented animate and inanimate objects, signs became ideographs and began to represent abstract ideas. The symbol for sun, for example, began to represent ideas such as “day” and “light.” As early scribes developed their written language to function in the same way as their speech, the need to represent spoken sounds not easily depicted arose.
Adverbs, prepositions, and personal names often could not be adapted to pictographic representation. Picture symbols began to represent the sounds of the objects depicted instead of the objects themselves. Cuneiform became rebus writing, which is pictures and/or pictographs representing words and syllables with the same or similar sound as the object depicted. Pictures were used as phonograms, or graphic symbols for sounds. The highest development of cuneiform was its use of abstract signs to represent syllables, which are sounds made by combining more elementary sounds.
Cuneiform was a difficult writing system to master, even after the Assyrians simplified it into only 560 signs. Youngsters selected to become scribes began their schooling at the edubba, the writing school or “tablet house,” before the age of ten and worked from sunrise to sunset every day, with only six days off per month. Professional opportunities in the priesthood, estate management, accounting, medicine, and government were reserved for these select few. Writing took on important magical and ceremonial qualities. The general public held those who could write in awe, and it was believed that death occurred when a divine scribe etched one’s name in a mythical Book of Fate.
Early Sumerian artisans mixed writing with relief images. The Blau monument (Fig. 1-14) may be the oldest extant artifact combining words and pictures on the same surface.
The knowledge explosion made possible by writing was remarkable. Mesopotamians organized libraries that contained thousands of tablets about religion, mathematics, history, law, medicine, and astronomy. There was a beginning of literature as poetry, myths, epics, and legends were recorded on clay tablets. Writing also fostered a sense of history; tablets chronicled with meticulous exactitude the events that occurred during the reign of each monarch. Thousands of commercial contracts and records still remain.
Writing enabled society to stabilize itself under the rule of law. Measurements and weights were standardized and guaranteed by written inscription (Fig. 1-15). Law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BCE, spelled out crimes and their punishments, thus establishing social order and justice. The Code of Hammurabi is written in careful cuneiform on a 2.5-meter (8-foot) tall stele, an inscribed or carved stone or slab used for commemorative purposes (Figs. 1-16 and 1-17). The stele contains 282 laws gridded in twenty-one columns. Steles with Hammurabi’s reformed law code were erected in the main temple of Marduk at Babylon and in other cities. Written in a precise style, harsh penalties were expressed with clarity and brevity. Some of these commandments include: “a thief stealing from a child is to be put to death”; “a physician operating on a slightly wounded man with a bronze scalpel shall have his hands cut off”; and “a builder who builds a house that falls and kills the owner shall be put to death.”
Mesopotamian visual identification
Two natural by-products of the rise of village culture were the ownership of property and the specialization of trades or crafts. Both made visual identification necessary. Cattle brands and proprietary marks were developed so that ownership could be established and the maker of pottery or other objects identified in case problems developed or superior quality inspired repeat purchases. A means of identifying the author of a clay cuneiform tablet certifying commercial documents and contracts and proving the authority of religious and royal proclamations was needed. Mesopotamian cylinder seals provided a forgery-proof method for sealing documents and proving their authenticity (Fig. 1-18). In use for over three thousand years, these small cylinders had images and writing etched into their surfaces. When they were rolled across a damp clay tablet, a raised impression of the depressed design, which became a “trademark” for the owner, was formed. Because the image carved into the round stone appeared on the tablet as a raised flat design, it was virtually impossible to duplicate or counterfeit. Many such stones had a hollow perforation running through them so that they could be worn on a string around the neck or wrist. Since the images could be reproduced, this can be seen as an initial form of printing.
The widely traveled Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 BCE) wrote that each Babylonian wore a cylinder seal on a cord around the wrist, like a bracelet. Prized as ornaments, status symbols, and unique personal signatures, cylinder seals were even used to mark a damp clay seal on the house door when the occupants were away, to indicate whether burglars had entered the premises. Cutters of cylinder and stamp seals developed great skill and a refined sense of design. The earliest seals were engraved with simple pictures of kings, a line of cattle, or mythic creatures. Later, more narrative images developed; for instance, one god would present a man (probably the seal’s owner) to another god, or a man would figure prominently in fighting a battle or killing a wild animal. In the later Assyrian period, a more stylized and heraldic design approach developed north of Mesopotamia. Stories of the gods were illustrated, and animals were shown engaged in battle (Figs. 1-19 and 1-20).
The last glory of Mesopotamian civilization occurred during the long reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (c. 634–561 BCE) in the city-state of Babylon. But in 538 BCE, after less than a century of great power during which Babylon, with nearly a million inhabitants, became the richest city in the world. Babylon and Mesopotamia fell to the Persians. Mesopotamian culture began to perish as the region became a province first of Persia, then of Greece, and finally of Rome. By the time of the birth of Christ, great cities such as Babylon had been abandoned, and the ziggurats had fallen into ruins. The dawning of visible language, the magnificent gift to mankind that was writing, passed forward to Egypt and Phoenicia. The Egyptians evolved a complex writing based on pictographs, and the Phoenicians replaced the formidable complexity of cuneiform with simple phonetic signs.
By the time King Menes unified the land of Egypt and formed the First Dynasty around 3100 BCE, a number of Sumerian inventions had reached Egypt, including the cylinder seal, architectural designs of brick, decorative design motifs, and the fundamentals of writing. Unlike the Sumerians, whose pictographic writing evolved into abstract cuneiform, the Egyptians retained their picture-writing system, called hieroglyphics (Greek for “sacred carving,” after the Egyptian for “the god’s words”), for almost three and a half millennia. The earliest known hieroglyphs (Fig. 1-21) date from about 3100 BCE, and the last known hieroglyphic inscription was carved in 394 CE, many decades after Egypt had become a Roman colony. The last people to use this language system were Egyptian temple priests. They were so secretive that Greek and Roman scholars of the era believed hieroglyphs were nothing more than magical symbols for sacred rites.
For nearly fifteen centuries, people looked with fascination upon Egyptian hieroglyphs without understanding their meaning. Then, in 1798, Napoleon conducted an expedition to Egypt in an effort to sever the English land route to India. In August 1799, his troops were digging a foundation for an addition to the fortification in the Egyptian town of Rosetta, which they were occupying. A black slab was unearthed bearing an inscription in two languages and three scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic script, and Greek (Fig. 1-22). This decree had been written in 197 or 196 BCE after a great council of Egyptian priests met to commemorate the ascension of Pharaoh Ptolemy V (c. 210–180 BCE) to the throne of Egypt nine years earlier. Scholars realized that the inscription was probably the same in the three languages, and translation efforts began. In 1819 Dr. Thomas Young (1773–1829) proved that the direction in which the glyphs of animals and people faced was the direction from which hieroglyphics should be read and that the cartouche for Ptolemy occurred several times (Fig. 1-23). A cartouche, an oval frame around the glyph of an important figure, is also the French word for “bullet,” the frame’s shape.
The major deciphering of the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs was done by Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832). He realized that some of the signs were alphabetic, some were syllabic, and some were determinatives (signs that determined how the preceding glyphs should be interpreted). Realizing that the hieroglyphs often functioned as phonograms and not simply pictographs, Champollion was able to sound out the name of Ptolemy. This breakthrough happened in 1822, after Champollion was given a copy of an inscription on an obelisk, a tall, geometric totemlike Egyptian monument. As Champollion studied its hieroglyphs, he was surprised to see the cartouche of Ptolemy, which he had deciphered earlier. Champollion assigned sounds to the three glyphs found in both words: those of p, o, and l. Then he patiently sounded out the others until he had a dozen hieroglyphic translations (Fig. 1-24). Armed with this new knowledge, he proceeded to decipher the cartouche for Alexander the Great.
Champollion gathered all the cartouches he could find from the Greco-Roman era and quickly translated eighty, building a large vocabulary of glyphs in the process.
After his death at age forty-two, Champollion’s Egyptian Dictionary and Egyptian Grammar were both published. His progress toward translating hieroglyphics enabled other nineteenth-century Egyptologists to unlock the mysteries of Egyptian history and culture silently preserved in hieroglyphics.
Hieroglyphics consisted of pictograms that depicted objects or beings. These were combined to designate actual ideas, phonograms denoting sounds, and determinatives identifying categories. When the early Egyptian scribes were confronted with words difficult to express in visual form, they devised a rebus, using pictures for sounds, to write the desired word (Fig. 1-25). (The American designer Paul Rand [1914–96] cleverly utilized the rebus system in his 1981 IBM poster [see Fig. 20-18].) At the same time they designated a pictorial symbol for every consonant sound and combination of consonants in their speech. Even though they never developed signs for the connecting sounds, combining the various glyphs produced a skeletal form for every word. By the time of the New Kingdom (1570–1085 BCE) this remarkably efficient writing system had more than seven hundred hieroglyphs, over one hundred of which remained strictly visual pictographs or word-pictures. The remainder had become phonograms. Because the Egyptian language contained so many homonyms (such as, for example, a pool of water and the game of pool), determinatives were used after these words to ensure that the reader correctly interpreted them. Hinew, for example, could refer to a liquid measure or to neighbors. In the former case it was followed by the glyph for beer pot; in the latter by glyphs for a man and a woman. Presenting far more possibilities than cuneiform, hieroglyphics were used for historical and commercial documents, poetry, myths, and epics, and they addressed geography, science, astronomy, medicine, pharmacy, the concept of time, and other topics.
Ancient Egypt clearly represents the early phases of Western civilization as we know it today. Greek culture received much of its knowledge from the Egyptians. Our use of visual symbols originated with the Egyptians; from them we inherited the zodiac, the scales of justice, and the use of animals to represent concepts, cities, and people. In Greece, the owl symbolized Athena, and the image of an owl on a Greek coin indicates that it was minted in Athens. Today we have the American eagle, the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Gamecocks, and the dove symbolizing peace. Graphic designer and historian Lance Hidy writes, “Our cultural debt to the idolatry of pagan Egypt was largely expunged from history by Christian revisionists.”
The ancient Egyptians had an extraordinary sense of design and were sensitive to the decorative and textural qualities of their hieroglyphs. This monumental visible language system was ubiquitous. Hieroglyphs were carved into stone as raised images or incised relief (Fig. 1-26), and color was often applied. These covered the interior and exterior of temples and tombs. Furniture, coffins, clothing, utensils, buildings, and jewelry all bore hieroglyphs with both decorative and inscriptional purposes. Frequently, magical and religious values were ascribed to certain hieroglyphs. The hieroglyph ankh, a cross surmounted by a loop (see Fig. 1-31), had modest origins as the symbol for a sandal strap. Due to phonetic similarity it gained meaning as a symbol for life and immortality and was widely used as a sacred emblem throughout the land.
The design flexibility of hieroglyphics was greatly increased by the choice of writing direction. One started from the direction in which the living creatures were facing. The lines could be written horizontally or vertically, so the designer of an artifact or manuscript had four choices: left to right horizontally; left to right in vertical columns; right to left horizontally; and right to left in vertical columns. Sometimes, as demonstrated in the schematic of the sarcophagus of Aspalta (Fig. 1-27), these design possibilities were combined in one work.
Papyrus and writing
The development of papyrus, a paper like substrate for manuscripts, was a major step forward in Egyptian visual communications. In ancient times the Cyperus papyrus plant grew along the Nile in shallow marshes and pools. Egyptians made extensive use of this plant, whose 4.5-meter (15-foot) stems grew up out of the water. They used papyrus flowers for garlands at the temples; roots for fuel and utensils; and stems as the raw material for sails, mats, cloth, rope, sandals, and, most importantly, papyrus.
In his Natural History, Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) tells how papyrus was made. After the rind was peeled away, the inner pith of the stems was cut into longitudinal strips and laid side by side. A second layer of strips was then laid on top of the first layer, at right angles to it. These two layers were soaked in the Nile River and then pressed or hammered until they were a single sheet—apparently, the glutinous sap of the papyrus stem acted as an adhesive. After drying in the sun, sheets were smoothed with an ivory or stone polisher. If such flaws as spots, stains, or spongy areas appeared, the faulty sheet would be peeled apart and remade. Eight different papyrus grades were made for uses ranging from royal proclamations to daily accounting. The finished sheets had an upper surface of horizontal fibers called the recto and a bottom surface of vertical fibers called the verso. The tallest papyrus sheets measured 49 centimeters (19 inches), and up to twenty sheets would be pasted together and rolled into a scroll, with the recto side facing inward.
As in Sumer, knowledge was power, and the scribes gained significant authority in Egyptian society. Learning to read and write the complex language took many years, and the profession of scribe was highly respected and brought many privileges, not the least of which was exemption from taxation.
The wooden palette used by the scribe was a trademark identifying the carrier as being able to read and write (Fig. 1-28). The example shown is 32.5 centimeters (12 inches) long. One end has at least two depressions, to hold black, red, and sometimes other ink cakes. With a gum solution as a binder, carbon was used to make black ink and ground red ocher to make red ink. These were dried into cakes similar to contemporary watercolor blocks, and a wet brush would then be rubbed onto the cake to return the ink to a liquid state for writing. A slot in the middle of the palette held the brushes, which were made from rush stems. The stem tips were cut on an angle and chewed by the scribe to separate the fibers into a brush.
Holding the scroll with his left hand, the scribe would begin at the outer right edge and write a column of hieroglyphs from top to bottom, writing column after column as shown in the mummy shroud fragment of Tuthmosis III (Fig. 1-29). This hieroglyphic book handwriting evolved from the monumental form—the scribes simplified the inscriptional hieroglyphs from a carefully constructed picture to a quickly drawn gesture.
By 1500 BCE priests had developed a cursory hieratic (from the Greek for “priestly”) script, a pen stroke simplification of the hieroglyphic book hand, for use in religious writings. The earliest hieratic script differed from the hieroglyphs only in that the use of a rush pen, instead of a pointed brush, produced more abstract characters with a terse, angular quality. An even more abstract script called demotic (from the Greek word for “popular”) came into secular use for commercial and legal writing by the year 400 BCE. The hieroglyph for scribe was a pictorial image of the very early brush holder, palette, and sack of ink. The characters accompanying the photograph of these artifacts show this evolution (Fig. 1-30). Hieratic and demotic scripts supplemented rather than supplanted hieroglyphs, which continued in use for religious and inscriptional purposes.
The first illustrated manuscripts
The Egyptians were the first people to produce illustrated manuscripts in which words and pictures were combined to communicate information. A preoccupation with death and a strong belief in the afterlife compelled the Egyptians to evolve a complex mythology about the journey into the afterlife. Through inventive myth and legend, the inexplicable was explained and faced. A final judgment would ultimately allow the deceased either to be admitted into the company of the gods or to suffer eternal damnation. The prayer of every Egyptian was to be cleansed of sin and found worthy at the final judgment. Scribes and artists were commissioned to prepare funerary papyri, called the Chapters of Coming Forth by Day. A nineteenth-century scholar named them the Book of the Dead, and this name is generally used today.
The Book of the Dead was a third phase in the evolution of funerary texts. Beginning with the pyramid of Unas (c. 2345 BCE), the walls and passages of the pyramids were covered with the pyramid texts of hieroglyphic writings, including myths, hymns, and prayers relating to the godlike pharaoh’s life in the afterworld. This practice was followed by the coffin texts: all surfaces of the wooden coffin and/or stone sarcophagus were covered with writings and often illustrated with pictures of possessions for use in the afterlife. Thus, high officials and noblemen could now enjoy the benefits of funerary texts even though the cost of a pyramid was beyond their means.
The dawning of the New Kingdom, around 1580 BCE, saw papyrus manuscripts come into use for funerary texts. Even citizens of fairly limited means could afford to have at least simple papyri made to accompany them on the journey into the afterlife. From pyramid to coffin to papyri—this evolution toward cheaper and more widespread use of funerary texts paralleled the increasingly democratic and secular aspects of Egyptian life.
The Book of the Dead was written as a first-person narrative by the deceased and placed in the tomb to help triumph over the dangers of the underworld. The artists who illustrated the Book of the Dead papyri were called upon to foretell what would occur after each subject died and entered the afterlife (Fig. 1-31). Magical spells could enable the deceased to turn into powerful creatures; passwords to enter various states of the underworld were provided, and the protection of the gods was sought. Wonderful futures were illustrated. One might dwell in the Fields of Peace, ascend into the heavens to live as a star, travel the sky with the sun god Ra in his solar boat, or help Osiris rule the underworld.
The journey into the underworld is depicted as a chronological narrative. The final judgment is shown in the Papyrus of Ani (Fig. 1-32). The jackal-headed god Anubis, keeper of the dead, prepares to weigh Ani’s heart against a feather symbolizing truth to see if he is “true of voice” and free from sin. Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the gods and keeper of the magical arts, is poised with a scribe’s palette to write the verdict. To the right, the monster Ammit, the devourer of the dead, stands poised for action should Ani fail to pass the moment of judgment. An imaginative visual symbol, Ammit has the head of a crocodile, the torso of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. A register across the top shows twelve of the forty-two gods who sit in judgment. Addressing each god in turn, a “negative confession” denies a host of sins: “I have not done evil; I have not stolen; I have not killed people; I have not stolen food.” Then, Ani speaks to his heart: “Set not thyself to bear witness against me. Speak not against me in the presence of the judges; cast not your weight against me before the Lord of the Scales.” Upon being found virtuous, his soul spends the night after death traveling into the underworld and arrives at his “coming forth by day” on the following morning.
A consistent design format evolved for the illustrated Egyptian papyri. One or two horizontal bands, usually colored, ran across the top and bottom of the manuscript. Vertical columns of writing separated by ruled lines were written from right to left. Images were inserted adjacent to the text they illustrated. Images often stood on the lower horizontal band, the columns of text hanging down from the top horizontal band. Frequently, a horizontal frieze like register ran along the top of a sheet. A sheet was sometimes divided into rectangular zones to separate text and images. The functional integration of text and image was aesthetically pleasing, for the dense texture of the brush-drawn hieroglyphs contrasted splendidly with the illustration’s open spaces and flat planes of color.
In the earlier versions of the Book of the Dead, the scribe designed the manuscript. If it was to be illustrated, blank areas were left that the artist would fill in as best he could. The vignettes gradually became more important and dominated the design. The artist would draw these illustrations first. Then the scribe would write the manuscript, trying to avoid awkward blank spaces and sometimes writing in the margins if the illustrator did not leave adequate room for the text. Skilled artists were retained to create the images, but the scribes who did this work were not scholars. Often, passages were omitted for purposes of layout or through poor workmanship. The manuscript illustrations were drawn in simplified contour lines using black or brown ink, and then flat color was applied using white, black, brown, blue, green, and sometimes yellow pigments. Perhaps the extensive use of luminous blue and green was a response to the intense blue of the Nile and the rich green of the foliage along its banks, a cool streak of life winding through vast reaches of desert.
Wall paintings and papyri used similar design conventions. Men were shown with darker skin color than women, and important persons were in larger scale than less important persons. The human body was drawn as a two-dimensional schematic. The frontal body had arms, legs, and head in profile. The stylized eye reads simultaneously as both profile and frontal image. Even though flatness was maintained, Egyptian artists were capable of sensitive observation and recording of details.
One could commission a funerary papyrus or purchase a stock copy and have one’s name written in appropriate places. The buyer could select the number and choice of chapters, the number and quality of illustrations, and the length. Excepting the 57-meter (185-foot) great Turin Papyrus, the Book of the Dead scrolls ranged from 5 meters (15 feet) to 28 meters (90 feet) long and were from 30 centimeters (12 inches) to 45 centimeters (18 inches) tall. Toward the final collapse of Egyptian culture, the Book of the Dead often consisted merely of sheets of papyrus, some of which were only a few inches square.
Egyptian visual identification
The Egyptians used cylinder seals and proprietary marks on such items as pottery very early in their history. They inherited both forms of identification from the Sumerians. From prehistoric times the scarab beetle was considered sacred or magical. In the Twelfth Dynasty, carved scarab emblems (Figs. 1-33 and 1-34) were commonly used as identification seals. These oval stones, usually of a glazed steatite, were sculpted likenesses of the scarab beetle. The flat underside, engraved with a hieroglyphic inscription, was used as a seal. Sometimes the scarab was mounted as a signet ring. Although every Egyptian of any standing had a personal seal, little evidence of scarabs actually being used for sealing has survived. Possibly the communicative function was secondary to the scarab’s value as talisman, ornament, and symbol of resurrection. The creator sun god, Khepri, linked to the scarab beetle, was sometimes depicted rolling the sun across the sky, just as the living scarab or dung beetle forms a ball of dung and rolls it across the sand to its burrow to be eaten over the following days. Ancient Egyptians apparently believed that the scarab beetle laid its eggs in this ball and related the scarab’s life cycle to the cyclical processes of nature, especially the daily rebirth of the sun. An amulet called a heart-scarab was placed over the heart of a mummy. Its engraved undersurface had a brief plea to the heart not to act as a hostile witness in the Hall of Justice of Osiris.
Ancient Egyptian culture survived for over three thousand years. Hieroglyphics, papyri, and illustrated manuscripts are its visual communications legacy. Along with the accomplishments of Mesopotamia, these innovations triggered the development of the alphabet and graphic communications in Phoenicia and the Greco-Roman world.
Early visual language systems, including cuneiform, hieroglyphics, and written Chinese (see chapter 3), contained a built-in complexity. In each, pictographs had become rebus writing, ideographs, logograms, or even a syllabary. But these early writing systems remained unwieldy and required long, hard study to master. For centuries, the number of individuals who gained literacy was small. Their access to knowledge enabled them to acquire great power in the early cultures. The subsequent invention of the alphabet (a word derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta) was a major step forward in human communications.
An alphabet is a set of visual symbols or characters used to represent the elementary sounds of a spoken language. They can be connected and combined to make visual configurations signifying sounds, syllables, and words uttered by the human mouth. The hundreds of signs and symbols required by cuneiform and hieroglyphics were eventually replaced by twenty or thirty easily learned elementary signs. Figure 2-1 shows stages in the evolution of Western alphabets. Numerous and often conflicting theories have been advanced about the origins of the alphabet; suggested sources include cuneiform, hieroglyphs, prehistoric geometric signs, and early Cretan pictographs.
The Minoan civilization that existed on the Mediterranean island of Crete ranks behind only Egypt and Mesopotamia in its early level of advancement in the ancient Western world. Minoan or Cretan picture symbols (Fig. 2-1) were in use as early as 2800 BCE. Short pictographic inscriptions written as early as 2000 BCE have been found. About 135 pictographs survive; they include figures, arms, other parts of the body, animals, plants, and some geometric symbols. By 1700 BCE these pictographs seem to have yielded to linear script writing, a possible precursor to the Greek alphabet.
One of the most interesting and perplexing relics of the Minoan civilization is the Phaistos Disk (Fig. 2-2), which was unearthed on Crete in 1908. Lacking precedent or parallel, this flat terra-cotta disk, 16.5 centimeters (6 inches) in diameter, has pictographic and seemingly alphabetic forms imprinted on both sides in spiral bands. Typelike stamps were used to impress each character into wet clay; thus the principle of movable type could have been used in a Western culture as early as 2000 BCE. Just what the inscriptions say, who made them, and whether the stamps or types were used to make messages on papyrus or other perishable substrates may never be known. Along with all Cretan pictographs, the Phaistos Disk remains a great mystery. Some scholars have suggested an origin other than Crete, but there is no evidence to support or reject this theory.
Although the visual similarity between Cretan pictographs and early alphabet characters is striking, many paleographers question whether Cretan pictographs were the wellspring for the alphabet.
The North Semitic alphabet
While the alphabet’s inventors are unknown, Northwest Semitic peoples of the western Mediterranean region—early Canaanites, Hebrews, and Phoenicians—are widely believed to be the source. The term North Semitic writing is used for early alphabetic writing found throughout this region. Because the earliest surviving examples are from ancient Phoenicia, a culture on the western shores of the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Lebanon and parts of Syria and Israel, these early scripts are often called the Phoenician alphabet. During the second millennium BCE the Phoenicians became seafaring merchants. Their sailing ships, the fastest and best engineered in the ancient world, linked settlements throughout the Mediterranean region. Influences and ideas were absorbed from other areas, including Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Geography and commerce wield great influence upon the affairs of people. Even the development of the alphabet may have been an act of geography, for the Phoenician city-states became hubs in the ancient world and crossroads of international trade. The Phoenicians absorbed cuneiform from Mesopotamia in the west and Egyptian hieroglyphics and scripts from the south. They may have had knowledge of Cretan pictographs and scripts and been influenced by them. Faced with this range of visible languages, they developed alternatives. Apparently, the Phoenicians sought a writing system for their own Northern Semitic speech; evidence of a number of localized experiments has been unearthed.
Sui generis, a writing script developed in Byblos, the oldest Phoenician city-state, used pictographic signs devoid of any remaining pictorial meaning. Written about 2000 BCE, stone and bronze documents featuring this script have a syllabary of over a hundred characters and illustrate a major step toward the development of an alphabet.
Around 1500 BCE Semitic workers in Egyptian turquoise mines in the Sinai Peninsula designed an achrophonic adaptation of hieroglyphics called Sinaitic script. Achrophonic means a pictorial symbol or hieroglyph was used to stand for the initial sound of the depicted object.
RasShamra script (Fig. 2-3), a true Semitic alphabetical script, was found on clay tablets inscribed around 1500 BCE. It used thirty cuneiform-like characters to represent elementary consonant sounds. The signs were composed of wedge-shaped marks that resembled cuneiform because a similar stylus was used. There were no characters to signify vowels, which are connecting sounds that join consonants to make words, now represented by the letters a, e, i, o, and u. The alphabetical order of RasShamra script—the sequence in which the letters were memorized—was the same as those used in the later Phoenician and Greek alphabets.
The writing exported by the Phoenicians, a totally abstract and alphabetical system of twenty-two characters (Fig. 2-1), was in use by 1500 BCE. One of the oldest datable inscriptions in the Phoenician alphabet was carved along the side of the lid of the limestone sarcophagus of the Byblos king Ahiram (c. eleventh century BCE). The Phoenicians’ right-to-left writing may have developed because stonemasons carved inscriptions by holding a chisel in the left hand and a hammer in the right. Their early alphabet script was also written on papyrus with a brush or pen; unfortunately, their literature, including, for instance, one Byblos author’s nine-book work on mythology, has perished.
Although North Semitic writing is the historical beginning of the alphabet, it may have descended from an earlier, lost prototype. Early alphabets branched into multiple directions, including the Phoenician alphabet that evolved further in Greece and Rome, as well as the Aramaic alphabet, which gave rise to Hebrew and Arabic writing elsewhere in the region.
The Aramaic alphabet and its descendants
The Aramaic alphabet (Fig. 2-4), first used by tribes from Aram, a large area in what is now Syria, is a major early derivation from the North Semitic script. The oldest surviving specimen dates from about 850 BCE. The Aramaic alphabet of twenty-two letters for consonantal sounds was written from right to left. A wide pen held at a forty-five-degree angle often produced heavy horizontal and thin vertical strokes. This language and writing became dominant throughout the Near East. Examples have been found in Afghanistan, Egypt, Greece, and India. It is the predecessor of hundreds of scripts, including two major alphabets used today: Modern Hebrew and Arabic. Both of these functional and beautifully designed letter systems are still written from right to left in the manner of their early Semitic predecessors.
The oldest known examples of the Early or Old Hebrew alphabet date from around 1000 BCE. When the Israelites returned to the western Mediterranean area following their Babylonian exile (586–516 BCE), they discovered Aramaic writing had replaced Old Hebrew in the region. The Aramaic alphabet—possibly with influences from Old Hebrew—spawned the Square Hebrew alphabet, which evolved into modern Hebrew (Fig. 2-5). Basically, the Hebrew alphabet consists of the twenty-two consonantal letters of the ancient North Semitic alphabet. Four letters are also employed to indicate long vowels, and five letters have a second form for use at the end of a word. As the language evolved, dots and dashes were added to characters to indicate vowels.
The curving calligraphic gestures of Arabic writing probably originated before 500 CE. The twenty-two original sounds of the Semitic alphabet are supplemented by six additional characters added to the end. Three letters are also used as long vowels, and diacritical marks are added for short vowels and to distinguish consonant sounds. The two principal forms are Kufic, from the Muslim academy at Kufah in Mesopotamia, and Naskhi, which became the dominant Arabic script after about 1000 CE. Kufic (Fig. 2-6), a bold inscriptional lettering with extended thick characters, has a majestic solidity and was widely used on coins, manuscripts, and inscriptions on metal and stone. It is still used for titles and decorative elements. The more cursive Naskhi style (Fig. 2-7) is ideal for writing on papyrus and evolved into the modern Arabic scripts. Its vertical ascenders followed by horizontal curved strokes below convey a kinetic rhythm as it moves across the page.
The design of Arabic letters changes with their position within a word. All but six letters connect to the following letter with a small, upward-curving stroke when used in the middle of a word. Letters at the beginning or middle of a word are abbreviated; final letters and letters standing alone terminate in a bold flourish. These design alterations do not change the fundamental structure of the characters.
After the Latin alphabet, Arabic is the most widely used alphabet today. Arab conquests during the seventh and eighth centuries CE spread the Muslim religion and its holy book, the Qur’an, written in the Arabic alphabet, all the way from North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula to India. Muslims believe the Qur’an (also spelled Koran) contains great truths revealed by Allah (God) to the prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632 CE) through the Archangel Gabriel. Respect for these religious writings has elevated calligraphy to a high art in Muslim cultures.
The Aramaic alphabet is believed to be the predecessor of scripts used in India, apparently arriving around the seventh century BCE. Extensive elaboration was necessary to develop alphabets suitable for Indian spoken languages. The Indian subcontinent has a complex array of spoken and written language forms, and the specific origins of early writing in India and its neighboring nations are quite controversial. Both classical Sanskrit (Fig. 2-8) and contemporary Indian writing have a vigorous horizontal and vertical structure, with the characters hanging from a strong horizontal stroke at the top. This horizontal stroke is believed to have originated from the scribal custom of writing beneath a ruled line, which gradually became part of the letter.
From North Semitic writing, the Aramaic alphabet and its descendants branched toward the East, forming a rich heritage of graphic forms remarkably different from their distant cousins, such as the Greek and Roman alphabets that evolved in Western locales.
The Greek alphabet
Greek civilization laid the foundation for many of the accomplishments of the Western world—science, philosophy, and democratic government all developed in this ancient land. Art, architecture, and literature comprise a priceless part of the Greek heritage; it is fitting that the Greeks vastly improved the alphabet’s beauty and utility after adopting it.
The Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the ancient Greeks and spread through their city-states around 1000 BCE. The oldest known inscriptions date from the eighth century BCE, but the Greek alphabet (Fig. 2-9, and see Fig. 2-1), occupying a major position in the evolution of graphic communication, may have developed earlier. The Greeks took the Phoenician or North Semitic alphabet and changed five consonants to vowels. It is not known for certain who transported the alphabet from Phoenicia to Greece, but both mythology and tradition, which, in the ancient world, frequently became scrambled with oral history, point toward Cadmus of Miletus (dates unknown). According to various ancient accounts, Cadmus invented history, created prose, and designed some of the letters of the Greek alphabet. These alleged accomplishments raise the possibility that Cadmus may have brought the alphabet to Greece.
In an enigmatic parallel, early Greek mythology reports that Cadmus, king of Phoenicia, set forth to find his sister Europa after she was abducted by Zeus. During his journey King Cadmus killed a dragon that had slain his traveling companions. On the advice of Athena, he planted the dragon’s teeth like seeds, and an army of fierce men sprang forth from them. Tradition holds that King Cadmus brought the alphabet to Greece. Perhaps myth and oral history hint at a blinding truth: the power of Cadmus to raise armies from nowhere could have been due to his command of the alphabet. Troop movements, scouting reports, and orders to the field could be delivered by writing. Cadmus’s power to raise and direct armies came not from planting dragon’s teeth but from using the alphabet as an information and communication tool.
Perhaps Cadmus’s story is a myth, and Phoenician traders brought the alphabet to Greece and other Mediterranean areas. Local Greek regions adapted the alphabet to their own needs until about 400 BCE, when Athens officially adopted a version that became standard throughout Greece.
The period around 700 BCE saw a cultural renaissance in Greece. Achievements included Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, stone architecture, and human figures as major subjects on pottery. Large freestanding sculptures were only decades away. The city-state of Athens, the foundation of representative government, organized surrounding towns into a unified political unit and moved toward an aristocratic republic by electing archons—the nine chief magistrates voted into one-year terms in 683 BCE. During this period the alphabet came into increasing use.
From a graphic design standpoint, the Greeks applied geometric structure and order to the uneven Phoenician characters, converting them into art forms of great harmony and beauty. The written form of Greek, as shown in The Persians, by Timotheus (Fig. 2-10), has a visual order and balance as the letters move along a baseline in an even repetition of form and space. The letters and their component strokes are somewhat standardized because a system of horizontal, vertical, curved, and diagonal strokes is used. In the inscriptional form, such as on the fifth-century BCE votive stele with four figures (Fig. 2-11), the letters became symmetrical geometric constructions of timeless beauty. Stone carvers took imaginative liberties with letterform design while maintaining the basic structure of the twenty-four-character alphabet that had stabilized by the classical period and is still used in Greece today. In this inscription, many letterforms, including the E and M, are based on a square, A is constructed from an equilateral triangle, and the design of the O is a near-perfect circle.
Initially the Greeks adopted the Phoenician style of writing from right to left. Later they developed a writing method called boustrophedon, from words meaning “to plow a field with an ox,” for every other line reads in the opposite direction. Line one reads from right to left; then the characters do an about-face, and line two reads from left to right. The reader thus scans the text with a continuous back-and-forth eye movement, unhindered by the need to return to the opposite edge of the column to read each line. Finally the Greeks adopted the left-to-right reading movement that continues to this day in Western civilization.
As early as the second century CE, the Greeks developed a more rounded writing style called uncials (Fig. 2-12). This script could be written more quickly, because its rounded letters were formed with fewer strokes. In addition to use on manuscripts, uncials were written on wood and soft materials such as wax tablets and clay. Uncials also demonstrated how writing tools and substrates influence written forms. Greek scribes made their pens from hard reeds, cut into nibs and split at the tip to aid ink flow. These pens gave their writing a totally different character than writing by Egyptian scribes, who used soft reeds to brush ink onto the substrate.
The golden age of Athens (c. 500 BCE) was the high point of Greek culture, when democracy, or “people rule,” began to be practiced. Aristotle called democracy “a state where freemen and the poor, being in a majority, are invested with the power of the State.” (Freedom and equality did not extend to all people. The system was, in fact, based on slavery, because slave labor freed citizens to devote their time and energy to public affairs.) The vote of the majority became law. Visual communications played a secondary role in the oral culture of the Greek city-state. All citizens could attend the popular assembly and vote, and all elected officials were responsible to it. The orator who could speak persuasively to the assembly, the actor, and the lecturer were paramount in these city-states, where the total population, including the surrounding countryside, seldom exceeded ten thousand people. The historian or poet who wrote rather than spoke was less seriously regarded.
Nonetheless, the alphabet played a role in democracy; it enabled the use of allotment tokens when selecting citizens by lot for public service (Fig. 2-13). Metal ballots with alphabet inscriptions made it possible for jurors to vote in secret (Fig. 2-14). To authorize and endorse documents, wealthy Greek citizens used signature seals, which could be stamped into wax or clay (Fig. 2-15). Exquisite designs were engraved into the flat, oval bottom of a translucent, pale blue or gray variety of quartz. Animals were a favorite motif. The refined forms, harmonious balance, and wholeness of Greek sculpture were achieved in these small (about 2-centimeter, or 3/4-inch) signature seals used to impress a personal identification.
From the Macedonian city-state of Pella at the top of the Greek peninsula, Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) smashed the power of the Persian Empire and carried Hellenistic culture throughout the ancient world, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India. Reading and writing had become more important by this time, because the expansion of information and knowledge exceeded the ability of an oral culture to contain and document it. Alexander formed libraries, including a major one with several hundred thousand scrolls, in the colonial outpost of Alexandria in Egypt.
The design format of the papyrus scroll was usually 10.5 meters (about 35 feet) long, 24 centimeters (9 or 10 inches) high, and, when rolled, 4 to 6 centimeters (1 to 2 inches) in diameter. The text layout was in flush-left/random-right columns about 8 centimeters (3 inches) wide, with generous 2.5-centimeter (1-inch) separations between them.
Unfortunately, most of the knowledge compiled by Greek civilization has been lost due to the fragile nature of papyrus scrolls and the damp Greek climate. Only thirty thousand scrolls survive, including only forty-three of the three hundred thirty plays by the great Greek playwrights.
After Alexander’s death in Babylon at the age of thirty-two, his generals divided his empire into separate Hellenistic kingdoms. Greek civilization and its alphabet now became influential throughout the world. The Greek alphabet fathered the Etruscan, Latin, and Cyrillic alphabets and, through these ancestors, became the foundation of most alphabet systems used throughout the world today.
The Latin alphabet
The rise of Rome from a small village to a great imperial city that ruled much of the world, and then the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire, constitutes one of the great sagas of history. Perhaps as early as 750 BCE Rome existed as a humble village on the Tiber River in central Italy. By the first century CE the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles in the north to Egypt in the south, and from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the Persian Gulf at the base of the ancient land of Mesopotamia in the east
. From a farm near Rome, the poet Horace (65–8 BCE) wrote, “Captive Greece took Rome captive.” After the Roman conquest of Greece in the second century BCE, scholars and whole libraries were moved to Rome. The Romans captured Greek literature, art, and religion, altered them to conform to the conditions of Roman society, and spread them throughout the vast Roman Empire.
The Latin alphabet (Fig. 2-1) came to the Romans from Greece by way of the ancient Etruscans (Fig. 2-16), a people whose civilization on the Italian peninsula reached its height during the sixth century BCE. After the letter G was designed by one SpuriusCarvilius (c. 250 BCE) to replace the Greek letter Z (zeta), which was of little value to the Romans, the Latin alphabet contained twenty-one letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R (which evolved as a variation of P), S, T, V, and X. Following the Roman conquest of Greece during the first century BCE, the Greek letters Y and Z were added to the end of the Latin alphabet because the Romans were appropriating Greek words containing these sounds. Three additional letters were added to the alphabet during the Middle Ages to arrive at the twenty-six letters of the contemporary English alphabet. The J is an outgrowth of I, which was lengthened in fourteenth-century manuscripts to indicate use with consonant force, particularly as the first letter of some words. Both U and W are variants of V, which was used for two different sounds in medieval England. At the beginning of the tenth century, U was designed to represent the soft vowel sound in contrast to the harder consonant sound of V. The W began as a ligature, which is a joining of two letters. In twelfth-century England two V letterforms were joined into VV to represent “double U.”
Rome took great pride in its imperial accomplishments and conquests, and created monumental letterforms for architectural inscriptions celebrating military leaders and their victories. Roman inscriptions were designed for great beauty and permanence. The simple geometric lines of the capitalismonumentalis (monumental capitals) were drawn in thick and thin strokes, with organically unified straight and curved lines (Fig. 2-17). Each letterform was designed to become one form rather than merely the sum of its parts. Careful attention was given to the shapes of spaces inside and between the letters. A Roman inscription became a sequence of linear geometric forms adapted from the square, triangle, and circle. Combined into an inscription, these letterforms molded the negative shapes around and between them into a measured graphic melody of spatial forms, achieving an eternal wholeness.
Much debate has centered on the elegantRoman serifs, which are small lines extending from the ends of the major strokes of a letterform. One theory holds that the serifs were originally chisel marks made by the “cleanup” strokes as the stonemason finished carving a letter. Others argue that the inscriptions were first drawn on the stone with a flat sign writer’s brush, and that the sign writer gave a short gesture before lifting the brush to sharpen the termination of the stroke. Regardless of which tool initiated the serif as a design element, we do know that the original letters were drawn on the stone with a brush and then carved into it.
The shapes and forms defy mathematical analysis or geometrical construction. A letter found several times on an inscription will have subtle differences in width and proportion. In some inscriptions, lines with more letters will have both the letterforms and the negative spaces between them slightly condensed to accommodate the information. This represents an artistic judgment by the brush writer rather than a measured calculation. Some Roman inscriptions even contain minute particles of red paint that have adhered to the stone through the centuries, leaving little doubt that the carved letters were painted with red pigment. Monumental capitals were carved as wedge-shaped troughs. The edges of the letterforms were not at sharp ninety-degree angles from the flat surface of the stone; rather, a gentler, angled taper created a shallower edge that resisted chipping and wearing.
The Roman written hand took several forms. The most important was the capitalisquadrata (square capitals), a style widely used from the second century CE until the fifth century. Written carefully and slowly with a flat pen, square capitals (Fig. 2-18) had stately proportions and clear legibility. The space between lines and letters was generous, but there was no space left between words. The letters were written between two horizontal baselines, and the F and L extended slightly above this line. The letter designs are quite similar to the letters we call capitals today. Serifs were added with the pen and strengthened the ends of the strokes.
The capitalisrustica (rustic capitals) were used during the same period (Fig. 2-19). These condensed letterforms were written quickly and saved space. Parchment and papyrus were expensive, and the style enabled the writer to include half again as many letters on the page as was possible with square capitals.
As is evident from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Roman brush writers wrote notices (Fig. 2-20), political campaign material, and advertising announcements on exterior walls, using both square and rustic capitals. Poster messages were also painted on reusable wooden panels placed in the streets. Placards and picture signboards were executed by professional letterers. Trademarks were widely used to identify the firm or place of origin of handcrafted products. Commercial records, documents of state, and literature were written on a variety of substrates. Papyrus from Egypt was supplemented by wood, clay, flat pieces of metal, and wax tablets held in wooden frames. Writing was scratched into wax with a stylus, the flat end of which was used to erase the writing in the soft wax so that the tablet could be used again.
Around 190 BCE parchment came into common use as a substrate for writing. Tradition holds that Ptolemy V (ruled c. 205–180 BCE) of Alexandria and Eumenes II (ruled 197–160 BCE) of Pergamum were engaged in a fierce library-building rivalry; therefore, Ptolemy placed an embargo on papyrus shipments to prevent Eumenes from continuing his rapid production of scrolls. Parchment, a writing surface made from the skins of domestic animals—particularly calves, sheep, and goats—was invented to overcome the embargo. These refined leather sheets are made by first washing the skin and removing all hair or wool. Then the skin is stretched tightly on a frame and scraped to remove all traces of hair and flesh. After being whitened with chalk, it is smoothed with pumice. Larger, smoother, and more durable and flexible than papyrus sheets, parchment became very popular as a writing surface. Vellum, the finest parchment, is made from the smooth skins of newborn and unborn calves.
The codex, a revolutionary design format, began to supplant the scroll (called a rotulus) in Rome and Greece, beginning about the time of Christ. Parchment was gathered in signatures of two, four, or eight sheets. These were folded, stitched, and combined into codices with pages like a modern book. The parchment codex had several advantages over the papyrus scroll. The clumsy process of unrolling and rolling scrolls to look up information yielded to the quick process of opening a codex to the desired page. Papyrus was too fragile to be folded into pages, and the vertical strips on the back of a papyrus scroll made writing on both sides impractical. Both sides of the parchment pages in a codex could be used for writing; this saved storage space and material costs.
During the rise of Christianity, from about 1 CE until about 400 CE, scrolls and codices were used concurrently. The durability and permanence of the codex appealed to Christians because their writings were considered sacred. Traditionally, pagan writings were on scrolls. With a whole pantheon of gods and little clear distinction between god and man, pagan scholars were less inclined to revere their religious writings. Christians were also involved in the comparative study of different texts. It is easy to have several codices open on a table but virtually impossible to have several scrolls unrolled for comparative reference. Christians sought the codex format to distance themselves from the pagan scroll; pagans clung to their scrolls in resistance to Christianity. Graphic format thereby became a symbol of religious belief during the late decades of the Roman Empire. Christianity, adopted as Rome’s state religion in 325 CE by Emperor Constantine (c. 272–337 CE), elevated books and writing to a position of far greater importance than their previous roles in the ancient world.
In the first century CE, Rome began to experience hostile actions from tribal peoples (called Barbarians by the Greeks) living beyond the Danube and Rhine rivers. In 325 CE, Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to the Greek town of Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople), located astride the mouth of the Black Sea. This weakened the western provinces, and the warlike Huns began to put great pressure on Rome’s immediate neighbors. The Roman Empire was permanently divided in half in 395 CE, and Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. The emperor moved his court to Ravenna, which became the capital of the Western Roman Empire until it fell in 476 CE, marking the final dissolution of the Roman Empire. Rome’s legacy includes architecture, engineering, language, law, and literature. Its alphabet became the design form for visible languages in the Western world.
The Korean alphabet
The Korean monarch Sejong (1397–1450 CE) introduced Hangul, the Korean alphabet, by royal decree in 1446. Hangul is one of the most scientific writing systems ever invented. Although the spoken Korean and Chinese languages are totally different, Koreans were using the complex Chinese characters for their written language. Sejong developed a simple vernacular alphabet of fourteen consonant and ten vowel signs to put literacy within the grasp of ordinary Korean citizens. He assembled a team of gifted young scholars to undertake a systematic study of existing writing systems and develop an innovative visible language.
Fourteen consonants (Fig. 2-21) are represented by abstract depictions of the position of the mouth and tongue when they are spoken, and these are placed in five groups of related sounds. Ten vowels (Fig. 2-22) are signified by dots positioned next to horizontal or vertical lines. The vertical line symbolizes a person, the horizontal line signifies the earth, and the round dot is seen as a symbol of heaven.
The Hangul alphabet is not written in a linear sequence in the manner of Greek and Roman alphabets; rather, letters are combined within an imaginary rectangle to form syllabic blocks. These syllables are made by combining at least one consonant and one vowel (Fig. 2-23). Syllables containing a vertical vowel sign are composed and read horizontally from left to right, while those containing a horizontal vowel are composed and read vertically from top to bottom. Complex syllables are made by adding letters to the simple syllables or by combining elementary syllables into more complex configurations. Hangul’s uniqueness among written languages stems in part from this system of clustering alphabet characters to construct syllables. In contemporary Korea the twenty-four letters are used to make over two thousand common syllables in everyday use (Fig. 2-24).
Just as the invention of printing launched a quiet revolution in Chinese culture, alphabetic writing on papyrus slowly transformed Western society. Alphabetic writing was spread throughout the world by conquering armies, traders, and especially religious missionaries. Easy to write and learn, systems of simple signs for elementary sounds made literacy available to large numbers of people. Alphabets are democratic writing; they put literacy within the reach of ordinary people, in contrast to the theocratic writing of the temple priests of Mesopotamia and Egypt. As scribes and priests lost their monopolies on written knowledge, their political power and influence declined. Secular and military leaders came to the fore as helmsmen in the classical world of Greece and Rome.
Alphabets remain one of humankind’s grandest achievements. Alphabetic writing became the mortar binding whole communities against limitations imposed by memory, time, and place. Greater access to information permitted broader participation in public affairs.
3 The Asian Contribution
Western civilization dawned from obscure sources along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia and along the course of the Nile River in Egypt. The origins of the extraordinary civilization that developed in the vast, ancient land of China are shrouded in similar mystery. Legend suggests that by the year 2000 BCE a culture was evolving in virtual isolation from the pockets of civilization in the West. Some of the many innovations developed by the ancient Chinese changed the course of human events. The compass made exploration and seafaring possible. Gunpowder, used by the Chinese for fireworks, fueled an aggressive aspect of the human temperament and changed the nature of war. Chinese calligraphy, an ancient writing system, is used today by more people than any other visual language system. Paper, a magnificent and economical substrate for transmitting information, and printing, the duplication of words and images, made possible the wide communication of thought and deed. Europeans adopted these Chinese inventions and used them to conquer much of the world: the compass (which may have been developed independently in Europe) directed early explorers across the seas and around the globe; firearms enabled Europeans to subjugate the native populations of Africa, Asia, and the Americas; and printing on paper became the method for spreading European language, culture, religion, and law throughout the world.
Similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan writing in Central America, the Chinese writing system is a purely visual language. It is not alphabetical, and every symbol is composed of a number of differently shaped lines within an imaginary square. Legend holds that Chinese was first written about 1800 BCE by Tsang Chieh, who was inspired to invent writing by contemplating the claw marks of birds and footprints of animals. Tsang Chieh proceeded to develop elementary pictographs of things in nature. These images are highly stylized and composed of a minimum number of lines, but they are easily deciphered. The Chinese sacrificed the realism found in hieroglyphs for more abstract designs.
Aesthetic considerations seem to have interested the Chinese from the early beginnings of their writing. Simple nouns were developed first, and the written language slowly matured and became enriched as characters were invented to express feelings, actions, colors, sizes, and types. Chinese characters are logograms, graphic signs that represent an entire word. (The sign $, for instance, is a logogram representing the word dollar). Ideographs and phonetic loans—borrowing the sign of a similar-sounding word—were developed, but written Chinese was never broken down into syllable signs, like cuneiform, or alphabetic signs for elementary sounds. Therefore, there is no direct relationship between the spoken and written Chinese languages. Both are independent systems for conveying thought: a sound from the mouth to the ear, and a sign from the hand to the eye. Learning the total vocabulary of forty-four thousand characters was the sign of wisdom and scholarship. The Japanese adapted the Chinese logograms for their written language despite the great differences between the two spoken languages. Similarly, different spoken Chinese dialects are written with the same logograms.
The earliest known Chinese writing is called chiaku-wen, or “bone-and-shell” script (Figs. 3-1 and 3-2), used from 1800 to 1200 BCE. It was closely bound to the art of divination, an effort to foretell future events through communication with the gods or long-dead ancestors. This ancient writing—as with hieroglyphics and cuneiform—was pictographic. Chinese pictographs are found incised on tortoise shells and large animals’ flat shoulder bones, called oracle bones, which convey communications between the living and the dead. When one wished to consult an exalted ancestor or a god, one asked the royal diviner to inscribe the message on a polished animal bone. The diviner pushed a red-hot metal bar into a hole in the inscribed bone, and the heat produced an intricate web of cracks. The diviner then read or interpreted these cracks, which were believed to be messages from the dead.
The next phase of Chinese calligraphy, called chin-wen, or “bronze” script, consisted of inscriptions on cast-bronze objects, including food and water vessels, musical instruments, weapons, mirrors, coins, and seals. Messages were inscribed in the casting molds to preserve answers received from gods and ancestors during divination. The permanence of bronze also made it suitable for important treaties, penal codes, and legal contracts. Ceremonial vessels used to hold food offerings during ancestor worship and vessels inscribed with dedications (Fig. 3-3) contained well-formed characters in orderly alignment. Most inscriptions were made inside the vessels, and the characters were more studied and regular than in the bone-and-shell inscriptions.
Artists in different places developed different writing styles until Chinese calligraphy was unified under the powerful emperor Shih Huang Ti (c. 259–210 BCE). During his reign Confucian scholars were buried alive and their books burned. Thousands of lives were sacrificed building the Great Wall of China to protect Shih Huang Ti and his empire. But the emperor also unified the Chinese people into one nation and issued royal decrees standardizing weights, measures, the axle length on carts, laws, and writing. Prime Minister Li Ssu (c. 280–208 BCE) was charged with designing the new writing style. This third phase in the design evolution of Chinese calligraphy is called hsiaochuan, or “small-seal” style (Fig. 3-1). The lines are drawn in thicker, more even strokes. More curves and circles are used in this graceful, flowing style, which is much more abstract than the earlier two styles. Each character is neatly balanced and fills its imaginary square primly.
Li-shu (also called “clerical” style) (Fig. 3-4), which had a major impact on Chinese calligraphy, can be divided into the Qing and Han styles. Later, Cheng Miao made a further simplification of the hsiaochuan, often referred to as the “Li transformation.” Writing was made much easier through changing the more rounded strokes into straight and angular ones.
The development of Li-shu reached its peak during the Eastern Han Dynasty and engendered various styles. Throughout the four centuries of Han rule, the vast majority of tablets were written in Li-shu. Within its flat structure, Li-shu is carefully and neatly executed, delicate with many variations. This style represents a watershed in the development of Chinese character, ushering in a new era of Chinese calligraphy. At the same time, it laid the foundation for the adoption of chen-shu.
The final step in the evolution of Chinese calligraphy is chen-shu (also, kai-shu, or “regular” style) (Fig. 3-5), which has been in continuous use for nearly two thousand years. In regular style, every line, dot, and nuance of the brush can be controlled by the sensitivity and skill of the calligrapher. An infinite range of design possibilities exists within every word. Structure, composition, shape, stroke thickness, and the relationship of strokes to each other and to the white spaces surrounding them are design factors determined by the writer. Regular-style calligraphy has an abstract beauty that rivals humanity’s highest attainments in art and design. Indeed, it is considered the highest art form in China, more important even than painting. Chinese painting and calligraphy have close bonds, since both are executed with ink on paper or silk using gestured strokes of the brush.
The evolution of Chinese writing can be traced from its pictographic origins through one of the early characters—for example, the prehistoric character for the three-legged pot called a li, which is now the word for “tripod” (Fig. 3-6). The li was an innovative product design, for the black discolorations on some surviving examples indicate that it stood in the fire to heat its contents rapidly. In the oracle-bone script, it was an easily recognized pictograph. In the 1000 BCE bronze script, this character had evolved into a simpler form. The regular-style character echoes the three-part bottom and flat top of the earlier forms.
The painting of bamboo from the Album of Eight Leaves (Fig. 3-7) by Li Fangying (1695–1755 CE) shows how the vividly descriptive strokes with a bamboo brush join calligraphy and painting, poem and illustration into a unified communication. Nature is the inspiration for both, and every stroke and dot is given the energy of a living thing. Children begin their early training by drawing bamboo leaves and stems with the brush to learn the basic strokes.
Spiritual states and deep feelings can be expressed in calligraphy. Thick, languid strokes become mournful, and poems written in celebration of spring have a light exuberance. A master calligrapher was once asked why he dug his ink-stained fingers so deeply into the hairs of his brush. He replied that only then could he feel the Tao (the cosmic spirit that operates throughout the universe in animate and inanimate things) flow from his arm, into the brush, and onto the paper.
Calligraphy was said to have bones (authority and size), meat (the proportion of the characters), blood (the texture of the fluid ink), and muscle (spirit and vital force). The Love of Lotus landscape (Fig. 3-8), painted by Shi Tao (1630–c. 1707 CE), clearly demonstrates the connection between calligraphy and Chinese painting. Shi Tao first used two different brush techniques to draw the lotus and the stone on the shore. The text in the upper left is Zhou Dunyi’s classical Song dynasty poem extolling the lotus. Li-shu calligraphy expresses movement and energy as an organic whole. Another Chinese master calligrapher is Wang Xizhi. Chinese calligraphers consider his chen-shu).
The invention of paper
Dynastic records attribute the invention of paper to the eunuch and high governmental official Ts’aiLun, who reported his invention to Emperor Ho in 105 CE. Whether Ts’aiLun truly invented paper, perfected an earlier invention, or patronized its invention is not known. He was, however, deified as the god of the papermakers.
In earlier times the Chinese wrote on bamboo slats or wooden strips using a bamboo pen with a dense and durable ink, the origins of which are obscure. Lampblack or soot was deposited on a dome-shaped cover over a vessel of oil with several burning wicks. The lampblack was collected, mixed thoroughly with a gum solution using a mortar and pestle, and then molded into sticks or cubes. For writing, such a stick or cube was returned to the liquid state by rubbing it in water on an inking stone. The strips of wood were used for short messages; 23-centimeter (about 9-inch) pieces of bamboo tied together with leather strips or silk string were used for longer communications. Although these substrates were abundant and easy to prepare, they were heavy. After the invention of woven silk cloth, it too was used as a writing surface. However, it was very costly.
Ts’aiLun’s process for making paper continued almost unchanged until papermaking was mechanized in nineteenth-century England. Natural fibers, including mulberry bark, hemp fishnets, and rags, were soaked in a vat of water and beaten into a pulp with pounding mortars. A vat-man dipped a screen-bottomed, framelike mold into the pulp solution, taking just enough onto the mold for the sheet of paper. With skill and split-second judgment, the vat-man raised the mold from the vat while oscillating and shaking it to cross and mesh the fibers as the water drained through the bottom. Then the paper was couched, or pressed onto a woolen cloth, to which it adhered while it dried. The mold was free for immediate reuse. The couched sheets were stacked, pressed, and then hung to dry. The first major improvement in the process was the use of starch sizing or gelatin to stiffen and strengthen the paper and increase its ability to absorb ink.
In paper’s early decades some ancient Chinese considered it a cheap substitute for silk or bamboo, but as time went on, its light weight, economical manufacture, and versatility overcame all reservations. The coarse, long-fibered quality of early paper caused no problems, because the hair brush, invented many centuries earlier, was the primary writing instrument. Scrolls for writing were made by gluing together sheets of paper, sometimes delicately stained slate blue, lemon yellow, or a pale, warm yellow. These sheets were rolled onto dowels of sandalwood or ivory that were sometimes tipped with jade or amber. In addition to writing on it, the Chinese used their new material as wrapping paper, wallpaper, toilet paper, and napkins.
The discovery of printing
Printing, a major breakthrough in human history, was invented by the Chinese. The first form was relief printing: the spaces around an image on a flat surface are cut away, the remaining raised surface is inked, and a sheet of paper is placed over the surface and rubbed to transfer the inked image to the paper. Two hypotheses have been advanced about the invention of printing. One is that the use of engraved seals to make identification imprints evolved into printing. As early as the third century BCE, seals or stamps were used to make impressions in soft clay. Often, bamboo or wood strips bearing writing were wrapped in silk, which was then sealed by clay stamped with an impression.
During the Han dynasty (third century CE) seals called chops (Fig. 3-10) were made by carving calligraphic characters into a flat surface of jade, silver, gold, or ivory. The user inked this flat surface by pushing it into a paste like red ink made from cinnabar, and then pressed it onto a substrate to form an impression, as one does with present-day rubber stamps. The impression was a red shape with white characters. Around 500 CE people began using a different kind of chop. The artisans cut away the negative area surrounding the characters so that the characters could be printed in red surrounded by white paper. The fundamental technique for block printing was now available. Zhao Meng-fu’s fourteenth-century painting of a goat and sheep (Fig. 3-11) has both types of chops imprinted upon its surface: white characters reversed from a solid ground and solid characters surrounded by a white ground.
The second theory about the origins of printing focuses on the early Chinese practice of making inked rubbings from inscriptions carved in stone (Fig. 3-12). Beginning in 165 CE, Confucian classics were carved into stone to ensure an accurate, permanent record. The disadvantages of these stone “books” were their weight and the space they required. One historical work required thirteen acres for storage of the tablets, which were arranged like rows of tombstones. Soon, copies of these inscriptions were pulled by making ink rubbings. A damp sheet of thin paper was laid on the stone. The paper was pressed into the depressions of the inscription with a stiff brush. Then, an inked cloth pad was lightly rubbed over the surface to produce an ink image from the incised inscription. Although the ink was applied to the top of the paper rather than to the relief image in this method, the process is related to relief printing.
As early as the second century CE, rubbings were also made from stone relief sculptures carved as offering shrines and tombs (Fig. 3-13). In a sense, these reliefs were closer to painting than to sculpture, for the figures crowding the complex designs were handled as flat silhouettes with linear detail and very little spatial depth. In retrospect, these votive and tomb carvings resemble neither sculpture nor painting as much as they do relief woodblock printing plates.
Whether relief printing evolved from chops, rubbings from stone inscriptions, or a synthesis of both is not known. Just who invented relief printing and when and where it began remain a mystery. The route is marked by undated relics: printed fabrics, stencil pictures, and thousands of stamped impressions of the Buddha figure. By about 770 CE, when the earliest existing datable relief printing was produced, the technique was well developed. Using a brush and ink, the material to be printed was prepared on a sheet of thin paper. Calligraphy was written, images were drawn. The block cutter applied this thin page to the smooth wooden block, image side down, after wetting the surface with a paste or sizing. When the paste or sizing was thoroughly dry, the paper was carefully rubbed off. A faint inked imprint of the image, which was now reversed, remained on the surface of the block.
Working with amazing speed and accuracy, the block cutter carved away the surface around the inked image, leaving it in high relief. The printer inked the raised surface, applied a sheet of paper over it, and then rubbed the back of the paper with a rubber or stiff brush to transfer the ink to the page, which was then lifted from the block. So efficient was this method that a skilled printer could pull over two hundred impressions per hour.
During the eighth century CE, Chinese culture and the Buddhist religion were exported to Japan, where the earliest surviving datable printing was produced. Mindful of the terrible smallpox epidemic three decades earlier, the Japanese empress Shotoku decreed that one million copies of Buddhist dharani (charms) be printed and placed inside one million miniature pagodas about 11.5 centimeters (4 inches) tall (Fig. 3-14). The empress was attempting to follow the teachings of Buddha, who had advised his followers to write seventy-seven copies of a dharani and place them in a pagoda, or place each one in its own small clay pagoda. This would lengthen one’s life and eventually lead to paradise. Empress Shotoku’s efforts failed, for she died about the time the charms were being distributed, rolled up in their little three-story wooden pagodas. But the sheer number produced, combined with their sacred value, and enabled numerous copies to survive to this day.
The oldest surviving printed manuscript is the Diamond Sutra (Fig. 3-15). It consists of seven sheets of paper pasted together to form a scroll 5 meters (16 feet) long and 30 centimeters (12 inches) high. Six sheets of text convey Buddha’s revelations to his elderly follower Subhuti; the seventh is a complex linear woodcut illustration of the Buddha and his disciples. Buddha decreed that “whosoever repeats this text shall be edified.” Apparently one Wang Chieh responded to the Buddha’s charge, for the final lines of text declare that he made the Diamond Sutra for wide, free distribution to honor his parents on the date equivalent to 11 May 868. The excellence of the printing indicates that the craft had advanced to a high level by the time it was produced.
During the early ninth century the Chinese government began to issue paper certificates of deposit to merchants who deposited metal currency with the state. When a critical provincial shortage of iron money developed shortly before the year 1000, paper money was designed, printed, and used in lieu of metal coins. The government took control of the currency’s production, and millions of notes per year were printed. Inflation and devaluation soon followed, as did efforts to restore confidence: money was printed on perfumed paper of high silk content, some money was printed on colored paper, and the penalty for counterfeiting was death. China thus became the first society in which ordinary people had daily contact with printed images. In addition to paper money, block prints bearing religious images and texts received wide distribution (Fig. 3-16),
During the tenth century, errors in the Confucian classics came to light. Chinese prime minister Fang Tao became deeply concerned and felt that new master texts should be made. Lacking the resources needed for extensive cutting of stone inscriptions, Fang Tao turned to the rapidly developing block-printing method for this monumental task. With great scholars of the age as editors who provided commentary and a famous calligrapher overseeing the writing of the master copies, producing the 130 volumes of the nine Confucian classics took twenty-one years, 933 to 953. Although the original goal was not spreading knowledge to the masses but authenticating the texts, Fang Tao took a fairly obscure craft and thrust it into the mainstream of Chinese civilization.
The scroll was replaced with paged formats in the ninth or tenth century. First, scrolls were turned into folded books that opened accordion-style, like a railroad timetable. In the tenth or eleventh century stitched books were developed. Two pages of text were printed from one block. Then the sheet was folded down the middle, with the unprinted side of the sheet facing inward and the two printed pages facing out. Sequences of these folded and printed sheets were gathered and sewn to make a codex-style book. The pages of the Pen ts’ao medical herbal (Fig. 3-17) were assembled in this fashion. Illustrations and calligraphy were used for headings. A design used to separate the text into sections was shown in the center of the right-hand page.
Another early form of Chinese graphic design and printing was playing cards (Fig. 3-18). These “sheet dice” were first printed on heavy paper cards about the time paged books were replacing manuscript scrolls.
A benchmark in block printing—reproducing beautiful calligraphy with perfection—was established in China by 1000 CE and has never been surpassed. The calligrapher was listed with the author and printer in the colophon. State printers were joined by private printers as histories and herbals, science and political science, poetry and prose were carved onto blocks of wood and printed. The quiet revolution that printing wrought upon Chinese intellectual life brought about a renaissance of learning and culture just as surely as Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the West did more than five hundred years later.
The invention of movable type
In a woodblock print, such as Figure 3-16, the wood around each calligraphic character is painstakingly cut away. Around 1045 CE the Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng (1023–63) extended this process by developing the concept of movable type, an innovative process never used widely in Asia. If each character were an individual raised form, he reasoned, then any number of characters could be placed in sequence on a surface, inked, and printed. He made his types from a mixture of clay and glue. These three-dimensional calligraphic characters were baked over a straw fire until they hardened. To compose a text, Pi Sheng placed them side by side upon an iron plate coated with a waxy substance to hold the characters in place. The plate was gently heated to soften the wax, and a flat board was pressed upon the types to push them firmly in place and equalize their height from the surface of the form. After the wax cooled, the page of calligraphic types was printed exactly like a woodblock. After the printing was complete, the form was heated again to loosen the wax so that the characters could be filed in wooden cases.
Because Chinese writing is not alphabetical, types were organized according to rhymes. The large number of characters in Asian languages made filing and retrieving the characters difficult. Later, the Chinese cast letters in tin and cut them from wood (Fig. 3-19), but movable type never replaced the handcut woodblock in China.
A notable effort to print from bronze movable type began in Korea under government sponsorship in 1403 CE. Characters cut from beech wood were pressed into a trough filled with fine sand, making a negative impression. A cover with holes was placed over the impression, and molten bronze was poured into it. After the bronze cooled, a type character was formed. These metal characters were, of course, less fragile than Pi Sheng’s earthenware types.
It is curious that movable type was first invented in cultures whose written language systems numbered not in the hundreds but in the thousands of characters. With a total of more than forty-four thousand characters, it is not surprising that movable type never came into widespread use in the Far East. One interesting effort to simplify sorting and setting types was the invention of a revolving “lazy Susan” table with a spinning tabletop 2 meters (7 feet) in diameter (Fig. 3-20). The compositor could sit at this table and rotate it to bring the section with the character within reach.
The Chinese contribution to the evolution of visual communications was formidable. During Europe’s thousand-year medieval period, China’s invention of paper and printing spread slowly westward, arriving in Europe just as the Renaissance began. This transitional period in European history began in fourteenth-century Italy and was marked by a rediscovery of classical knowledge, a flowering of the arts, and the beginnings of modern science. All were aided by printing.
4 Illuminated Manuscripts
The vibrant luminosity of gold leaf, as it reflected light from the pages of handwritten books, gave the sensation of the page being literally illuminated; thus, this dazzling effect gave birth to the term illuminated manuscript. Today this name is used for all decorated and illustrated handwritten books produced from the late Roman Empire until printed books replaced manuscripts after typography was developed in Europe around 1450. Two great traditions of manuscript illumination are the Eastern in Islamic countries and the Western in Europe, dating from classical antiquity. Sacred writings held great meaning for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The use of visual embellishment to expand the word became very important, and illuminated manuscripts were produced with extraordinary care and design sensitivity.
Manuscript production was costly and time-consuming. Parchment or vellum took hours to prepare, and a large book might require the skins of three hundred sheep. Black ink for lettering was prepared from fine soot or lampblack. Gum and water were mixed with sanguine or red chalk to produce a red ink for headings and paragraph marks. A brown ink was formulated from “irongall,” a mixture of iron sulfate and oak apples, which are oak galls caused by wasp larvae. Colors were created from a variety of mineral, animal, and vegetable matter. A vibrant, deep blue was made from lapis lazuli, a precious mineral mined only in Afghanistan that found its way to monasteries as far away as Ireland. Gold (and, less frequently, silver) was applied in two ways: sometimes it was ground into a powder and mixed into a gold paint, but this left a slightly grainy surface, so the preferred application method was hammering the gold into a fine sheet of gold leaf and applying it over an adhesive ground. Burnishing for texture, punching, and tooling with metalworking tools were often used on gold leaf for design effects. Books were bound between wooden boards usually covered with leather. Decorative patterns were applied by tooling the leather, and important liturgical manuscripts often had precious jewels, gold- and silverwork, enameled designs, or ivory carving on their covers.
During the early Christian era, nearly all books were created in the monastic scriptorium, or writing room. The head of the scriptorium was the scrittori, a well-educated scholar who understood Greek and Latin and functioned as both editor and art director, with overall responsibility for the design and production of the manuscripts. The copisti was a production letterer, who spent his days bent over a writing table penning page after page in a trained lettering style. The illuminator, or illustrator, was an artist responsible for the execution of ornament and image in visual support of the text. The word was supreme, and the scrittori controlled the scriptorium. He laid out the pages to indicate where illustrations were to be added after the text was written. Sometimes this was done with a light sketch, but often a note jotted in the margin told the illustrator what to draw in the space.
The colophon of a manuscript or book is an inscription, usually at the end, containing facts about its production. Often the scribe, designer, or, later, printer is identified. A number of colophons describe the work of the copisti as difficult and tiring. In the colophon of one illuminated manuscript, a scribe named George declared, “As the sailor longs for a safe haven at the end of his voyage, so does the writer for the last word.” Another scribe, Prior Petris, described writing as a terrible ordeal that “dims your eyes, makes your back ache, and knits one’s chest and stomach together.” The reader was then advised to turn the pages carefully and to keep his finger far from the text.
In addition to preserving classical literature, the scribes working in medieval monasteries invented musical notation. Leo Treitler describes this in his book With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know the Medieval Song and How It Was Made (Oxford, 2003). As early as the ninth century, punctuation marks were gradually introduced to denote pauses and pitch changes for chants, eventually leading to the five-line staff. In addition to the Carolingian minuscule and the adaptation of Arabic numerals, musical notation is one of the most important contributions of medieval graphic design.
The illustration and ornamentation were not mere decoration. The monastic leaders were mindful of the educational value of pictures and the ability of ornament to create mystical and spiritual overtones. Most illuminated manuscripts were small enough to fit into a saddlebag. This portability enabled the transmission of knowledge and ideas from one region to another and one time period to another. Manuscript production over the thousand-year course of the medieval era created a vast vocabulary of graphic forms, page layouts, illustration and lettering styles, and techniques. Regional isolation and difficult travel caused innovation and influences to spread very slowly, so identifiable regional design styles emerged. Some of the more distinctive schools of manuscript production can be ranked as major innovations in graphic design.
The classical style
In classical antiquity, the Greeks and Romans designed and illustrated manuscripts, but few have survived. The Egyptian Book of the Dead was probably an influence. The fabulous Greek library at Alexandria, where late Egyptian culture met early classical culture, presumably contained many illustrated manuscripts. A fire during the time of Julius Caesar (100–44 BCE) destroyed this great library and its seven hundred thousand scrolls. In the few surviving fragments of illustrated scrolls, the layout approach features numerous small illustrations drawn with a crisp, simple technique and inserted throughout the text. Their frequency creates a cinematic graphic sequence somewhat like the contemporary comic book.
The invention of parchment, which was so much more durable than papyrus, and the codex format, which could take thicker paint because it did not have to be rolled, opened new possibilities for design and illustration. Literary sources refer to manuscripts on vellum, with a portrait of the author as a frontispiece.
The earliest surviving illustrated manuscript from the late antique and early Christian era is the Vatican Vergil. Created in the late fourth century or early fifth century CE., this volume contains two major works by Rome’s greatest poet, PubliusVergiliusMaro (70–19 BCE): his Georgics, poems on farming and country life; and the Aeneid, an epic narrative about Aeneas, who left the flaming ruins of Troy and set out to found a new city in the west. In this illustration (Fig. 4-1) two scenes depicting the demise of Laocoön, a priest punished by death for profaning the temple of Apollo, are shown in sequence within one image. At left, Laocoön calmly prepares to sacrifice a bull at the temple of Poseidon, oblivious to the approach of two serpents in the lake at the upper left corner. On the right, Laocoön and his two young sons are attacked and killed by the serpents.
A consistent design approach is used in the Vatican Vergil. The text is lettered in crisp rustic capitals, with one wide column on each page. Illustrations, framed in bright bands of color (frequently red), are the same width as the text column. These are placed at the top, middle, or bottom of the page, adjacent to the passage illustrated. There are six full-page illustrations, and the illustrator neatly lettered the names of the major figures upon their pictures in the manner of present-day political cartoonists.
The Vatican Vergil is completely Roman and pagan in its conception and execution. The lettering is Roman, and the illustrations echo the rich colors and illusionistic space of the wall frescoes preserved at Pompeii. This pictorial and historical method of book illustration, so similar to late Roman painting, combined with rustic capitals, represents the classical style. It was used in many early Christian manuscripts and characterizes late Roman book design.
After the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 CE, an era of dislocation and uncertainty ensued. Cities degenerated and became small villages; officials left their duties and moved to their country estates; government and law ceased to exist. Trade and commerce slumped and almost became nonexistent, for travel became extremely dangerous. Europe’s regional languages, customs, and geographic divisions started to form in isolated areas during this period. The general population languished in illiteracy, poverty, and superstition.
The thousand-year medieval (meaning “middle”) era lasted from the fifth-century fall of Rome until the fifteenth-century Renaissance. The centuries following the decline of Rome saw Barbarian and Roman influences combine to produce a rich and colorful design vocabulary in the arts and crafts. Although the medieval era has been called the Dark Ages, there was nothing dark about the crafts of the period. The knowledge and learning of the classical world were almost entirely lost, but the Christian belief in sacred religious writings became the primary impetus for the preservation and making of books. Christian monasteries were the cultural, educational, and intellectual centers.
As early as the third century CE, majestic page designs were achieved in early Christian manuscripts by dyeing parchment a deep and costly purple color and lettering the text in silver and gold. The monastic graphic artists who produced these works were severely reprimanded by Saint Jerome (c. 347–420 CE), who, in his preface to a manuscript Book of Job, blasted the practice as a useless and wasteful extravagance.
The evolution of letter styles was based on a continuing search for simpler and faster letterform construction and writing ease. Two important new techniques came into prominence during the late antique and early Christian periods. Both were primarily used within the Christian church from the fourth until the ninth century CE and have retained this association. As mentioned earlier, the uncials (Fig. 4-2), so named because they were written between two guidelines that were one uncia (the Roman inch) apart, were actually invented by the Greeks as early as the third century BCE. In a Greek wooden tablet from 326 CE (see Fig. 2-12), the primary characteristics of uncials are seen. Uncials are rounded, freely drawn majuscule letters more suited to rapid writing than either square capitals or rustic capitals. The curves reduced the number of strokes required to make many letterforms, and the number of angular joints—which have a tendency to clog up with ink—was significantly reduced. Certain letters in the uncial style threatened to develop ascenders (strokes rising above the top guideline) or descenders (strokes dropping below the baseline), but the design remained that of a majuscule or capital letter. A step toward the development of minuscules (small or “lowercase” letterforms) was the semiuncial or half-uncial (Fig. 4-3). Four guidelines instead of two were used, and strokes were allowed to soar above and sink below the two principal lines, creating true ascenders and descenders. The pen was held flatly horizontal to the baseline, which gave the forms a strong vertical axis. Half-uncials were easy to write and had increased legibility because the visual differentiation between letters was improved. Although some half-uncials appeared in the third century CE, they did not flourish until the late sixth century.
Celtic book design
The period from the collapse of Rome until the eighth century was a time of migration and upheaval throughout Europe, as different ethnic tribes fought for territory. These unsettled times were the darkest decades of the medieval era. However, wandering hordes of Germanic Barbarians did not invade the island of Ireland, tucked in the far corner of Europe, and the Celts living there enjoyed relative isolation and peace. In the early fifth century CE, the legendary Saint Patrick and other missionaries began to rapidly convert the Celts to Christianity. In a fascinating melding of culture and religion, pagan temples were converted to churches, and Celtic ornaments were applied to chalices and bells brought to Ireland by the missionaries.
Celtic design is abstract and extremely complex; geometric linear patterns weave, twist, and fill a space with thick visual textures, and bright, pure colors are used in close juxtaposition. This Celtic craft tradition of intricate, highly abstract decorative patterns was applied to book design in the monastic scriptoria, and a new concept and image of the book emerged. A series of manuscripts containing the four narratives of the life of Christ are the summit of Celtic book design. Written and designed around 680 CE, the Book of Durrow is the earliest fully designed and ornamented Celtic book. The Book of Durrow was first assumed to have been created in Ireland. However, it is now thought to have come from the British Isles, but written and decorated by Irish scribes.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, written by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, before 698 CE, represents the full flowering of the Celtic style. The masterwork of the epoch is the Book of Kells, created at the island monastery of Iona around 800 CE. Countless hours of work were lavished upon individual pages, whose vibrant color and form are in distinct contrast to the stark, reclusive environment and rule of silence found in the monastic scriptorium.
Ornament was used in three ways: ornamental frames or borders were created to enclose full-page illustrations (Fig. 4-4); opening pages of each gospel and other important passages were singled out for illumination, particularly by the design of ornate initials (Fig. 4-5); and full pages of decorative design called carpet pages were bound into the manuscript. This name developed because the densely packed design had the intricate patterning associated with oriental carpets. As a carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels shows (Fig. 4-6), a seventh-century Celtic cross or other geometric motif became an organizing form that brought structure to the interlaces and lacertines filling the space. The interlace was a two-dimensional decoration formed by a number of ribbons or straps woven into a complex, usually symmetrical design. It is evident that drafting instruments were used to construct many of the designs in Celtic manuscripts. Interlaces created by animal forms were called lacertines. Most of the forms were either invented from imagination or based on earlier models. Careful observation of nature was not required of the Celtic designer or illustrator.
Large initials on the opening pages grew bigger in newer books as the decades passed. Integration of these initials with the rest of the text was a challenging design problem. The monks resolved it with a graphic principle called diminuendo, which is a decreasing scale of graphic information. On the opening page of the Gospel of Saint Mark in the Book of Durrow, the first letters of the word Initium create a large monogram thrusting down the page. The large double initial is followed in decreasing size by a smaller initial, the last four letters of the first word, the next two words, and the text. This descending scale unites the large initial with the text. Red S-shaped lines or dots link each text line to the initial and further unify the elements. The red dot pattern transforms the first three words into rectangles and contours the first letters of each verse. Ultimately, a harmonious design system is created. These red dots were used profusely, and watercolor washes often filled the negative spaces inside and between letters. Sometimes pigments were handled thickly and opaquely; at other times they were thin and as translucent as enamel.
In the Gospels the name of Christ is first mentioned in the eighteenth verse of the first chapter of Matthew. The illuminator created a graphic explosion using the monogram XPI. This letter combination—used to write “Christ” in manuscripts—is called the Chi-Rho, after the first two letters of the Greek word for “Christ,” chi (X) and rho (P). The Chi-Rho in the Book of Kells (Fig. 4-7) is composed of shimmering color and intricate, convoluted form blossoming over a whole page. On another page the authors of the four gospels were signified by symbolic beings (Fig. 4-8). Having Saint Mark represented by a lion, Saint Luke by an ox, and Saint John by an eagle is part of a pagan tradition with its origin in Egyptian culture.
A radical design innovation in Celtic manuscripts was leaving a space between words to enable the reader to separate the string of letters into words more quickly. The half-uncial script journeyed to Ireland with the early missionaries and was subtly redesigned into the scriptura scottica—or “insular script” (Figs. 4-5 and 4-9), as it is now called—to suit local visual traditions. These half-uncials became the national letterform style in Ireland and are still used for special writings and as a type style. Written with a slightly angled pen, the full, rounded characters have a strong bow, with ascenders bending to the right. A heavy triangle perches at the top of ascenders, and the horizontal stroke of the last letter of the word, particularly e or t, zips out into the space between words. The text page from the Book of Kells shows how carefully the insular script was lettered. Characters are frequently joined at the waistline or the baseline.
Ironically, these beautiful, carefully lettered half-uncials convey a text that is careless and contains misspellings and misreadings. Even so, the Book of Kells is the culmination of Celtic illumination. Its noble design has generous margins and huge initial letters. Far more full-page illustrations than in any other Celtic manuscript are executed with a remarkable density and complexity of form; over 2,100 ornate capitals make every page a visual delight. Through the course of its 339 leaves, sentences intermittently bloom into full-page illuminations.
The magnificent Celtic school of manuscript design ended abruptly before the Book of Kells was completed. In 795 CE northern raiders made their first appearance on the Irish coast, and a period of intense struggle between the Celts and the Vikings followed. Both Lindisfarne and Iona, seats of two of the greatest scriptoria in medieval history, were destroyed. When the invading Northmen swarmed over the island of Iona, where the Book of Kells was being completed in the monastic scriptorium, escaping monks took it to Kells and continued to work on it there. It can only be guessed whether or not majestic illuminated manuscripts were lost, or what magnificent volumes might have been designed had peace and stability continued for the Celts of Ireland.
The Caroline graphic renewal
When Charlemagne (742–814 CE), king of the Franks since 768 and the leading ruler of central Europe, rose from prayer in Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome on Christmas Day, 800 CE, Pope Leo III (d. 816 CE) placed a crown on his head and declared him emperor of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire. The whole of central Europe was united under Charlemagne in an empire that was neither Roman nor particularly holy. Nevertheless, it attempted to recapture the grandeur and unity of the Roman Empire in a Germanic and Christian federation. In addition to restoring the concept of empire to the West, Charlemagne introduced the feudal system, where landowning noblemen held dictatorial power over peasants who toiled in the fields, in an effort to bring order to chaotic medieval society.
Although by some reports he was illiterate except to sign his name, Charlemagne fostered a revival of learning and the arts. The England of the 700s had seen much intellectual activity, and Charlemagne recruited the English scholar Alcuin of York (c. 732–804 CE) to come to his palace at Aachen and establish a school. Except for the Celtic pattern-making tradition, book design and illumination had sunk to a low ebb in most of Europe. Illustrations were poorly drawn and composed, and writing had become localized and undisciplined in the hands of poorly trained scribes. Many manuscripts were difficult, if not impossible, to read. Charlemagne mandated reform by royal edict in 789 CE. At the court in Aachen, a turba scriptorium (“crowd of scribes,” as Alcuin called them) was assembled to prepare master copies of important religious texts. Then books and scribes were dispatched throughout Europe to disseminate the reforms.
Standardization of page layout, writing style, and decoration was attempted. Efforts to reform the alphabet succeeded. For a model, the ordinary writing script of the late antique period was selected, combined with Celtic innovations, including the use of four guidelines, ascenders, and descenders, and molded into an ordered uniform script called Caroline minuscule (Fig. 4-10).
The Caroline minuscule is the forerunner of our contemporary lowercase alphabet. This clear set of letterforms was practical and easy to write. Characters were set apart instead of joined, and the number of ligatures was reduced. Much writing had become a slurred scrawl; the new alphabet restored legibility. The Caroline minuscule became the standard throughout Europe for a time, but as the decades passed, writing in many areas veered toward regional characteristics. Roman capitals were studied and adopted for headings and initials of great beauty. These were not calligraphic but carefully drawn and built up with more than one stroke. The use of a dual alphabet was not fully developed in the sense that we use capital and small letters today, but a process in that direction had begun. In addition to graphic reforms, the court at Aachen revised sentence and paragraph structure as well as punctuation. The Carolingian revival of scholarship and learning stayed a serious loss of human knowledge and writings that had been occurring through the early medieval period.
When early manuscripts from the late antique period and Byzantine culture were imported for study, illuminators were shocked and stunned by the naturalism and illusion of deep space in the illustrations. The two-dimensional style suddenly seemed passé in the face of this “picture-window” style, where space moved back into the page from a decorative frame and clothes seemed to wrap the forms of living human figures. Lacking the skill or basic knowledge of the antique artists, Carolingian illuminators began to copy these images, with sometimes uneven results. The classical heritage was revived as accurate drawing and illusionistic techniques were mastered by some illuminators. Figurative imagery and ornament, which had been scrambled together in earlier medieval illumination, separated into distinct design elements.
In a manuscript book such as the Coronation Gospels (Fig. 4-11), designed and produced at the court of Charlemagne in the late eighth century CE, a classical yet somewhat primitive elegance emerges. The two facing pages are unified by their exactly equal margins. Initial letters echo Roman monumental capitals, and the text appears to be closely based on the insular script of Ireland. Rustic capitals are used for supplementary materials, including chapter lists, introductory words, and prefaces. Whether this book was designed, lettered, and illuminated by scribes brought in from Italy, Greece, or Constantinople is not known. The creators of this book understood the lettering and painting methods of classical culture. Legend claims that in the year 1000 CE, Emperor Otto III (980–1002 CE) of the Holy Roman Empire journeyed to Aachen, opened Charlemagne’s tomb, and found him seated on a throne with the Coronation Gospels on his lap. Elegant examples of manuscripts written in Caroline minuscule include the Capitularies of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious c. 873 CE. (Fig. 4-12) and a Latin version of Pope Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Iob (Commentary on Job), created in France during the eleventh or twelfth century (Fig. 4-13).
Spanish pictorial expressionism
On the Iberian Peninsula, isolated from the rest of Europe by mountains, the scriptoria did not experience the initial impact of the Carolingian renewal. In 711 CE, a Moorish army under the Arab governor of Tangier crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and crushed the Spanish army. Even the Spanish king was among the missing in action. Moorish settlers mingled Islamic design motifs with Christian traditions to create unique manuscript designs.
A number of Islamic design motifs filtered into Spanish Christian manuscripts. Flat shapes of intense color were used. Sometimes they were sprinkled with stars, rosettes, polygons, or garlands in optically active contrasting colors. Flat, schematic drawing had prominent outlines. The two-dimensional aggressive color created a frontal intensity that obliterated any hint of atmosphere or illusion. A pagan tradition of totemic animals dates back through Islamic northern Africa to Persia to ancient Mesopotamia, and these ghastly creatures reared their frightful heads in Spanish illumination. Decorative frames enclosed most illustrations, with intricate patterns evoking the richly colored geometric designs applied to Moorish architecture in tilework and molded and chiseled decorations.
There was a fascination with designs of intricate geometry and intense, pure color. In the commemorative labyrinth from another version of Pope Gregory’s Moralia in Iob (Commentary on Job) of 945 CE, the scribe Florentius designed a labyrinth page (Fig. 4-14) bearing the words Florentiumindignummemorare, which modestly ask the reader to “remember the unworthy Florentius.” Florentius’s humility is belied by the dazzling graphic treatment and its position opposite the monogram of Christ. Labyrinth arrangements of commemorative messages date from ancient Greece and Rome and were quite popular in medieval manuscripts.
For the medieval faithful, life was but a prelude to eternal salvation, if the individual could triumph in the battle between good and evil raging on earth. Supernatural explanations were still assigned to natural phenomena that were not understood; eclipses, earthquakes, plague, and famine were seen as dire warnings and punishments. People believed a terrible destruction awaited the earth as foretold by the biblical Book of Revelation. It suggested a date, “When the thousand years had expired,” as a likely time for the Last Judgment. Many considered the year 1000 CE the probable end of the world; concern mounted as the year drew nigh. Among numerous interpretations of Revelation, the Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse of Saint John the Divine was widely read. The monk Beatus (730–798 CE) of Liebana in northern Spain wrote this harrowing interpretation in 776 CE. Graphic artists gave visual form to the fearful end of the world in numerous copies penned and illustrated throughout Spain. The monastic dictum Picturaestlaicorumliteratura (The picture is the layman’s literature) evidences the motivation for illustrations conveying information to the illiterate. Combining Christian prophecy with Moorish design influences, they succeeded admirably. The Book of Revelation is laced with rich, expressive imagery, and pictures assumed an importance rivaling that of the text. Full-page illustrations appeared frequently.
Over sixty different passages are illustrated in twenty-three surviving copies. Stark, symbolic descriptions challenged the artist’s mind as Beatus’s interpretation of this prophecy was visualized. This is the most forceful interpretation of the Apocalypse in graphic art before Albrecht Dürer’s intricate woodcut illustrations in the early 1500s (see Fig. 6-13).
On New Year’s Eve, 999 CE, many Europeans gathered to await the final judgment. Some reportedly spent the night naked on their cold rooftops waiting for the end. When nothing happened, new interpretations of the “thousand years” phrase were made, and manuscript copies of Beatus’s Commentary continued to be produced. In the masterful Beatus of Fernando and Sancha of 1047 CE, the scribe and illuminator Facundus drew schematic figures acting out the final tragedy in a hot and airless space created by flat horizontal bands of pure hue. The thick color is bright and clear. Chrome yellow, cobalt blue, red ocher, and intense green are slammed together in jarring contrasts. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Fig. 4-15) who are traditionally War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death, ride forth to unleash their terror upon the world.
Revelation 8:12 tells, “The fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars, so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shown not for a third part of it, and the night likewise” (Fig. 4-16). The sun (labeled sol) and the moon (labeled luna) are one-third white and two-thirds red, to illustrate that one-third of each had fallen away. A sinister eagle flies into the space screaming, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.” As an iconic symbol, this angel is worlds away from the pure white angel of hope in later Christian imagery. Inspired by words in the Apocalypse, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end,” Facundus designed the first page of the Beatus of Fernando and Sancha as a huge illuminated A (alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet), and the last page as a huge illuminated O (omega, the last letter).
During the early eleventh century CE, the balance of power in Spain swung from the Moors to the Christians. Communications with other European countries improved, and Spanish manuscript design tilted toward the continental mainstream that developed from the Carolingian style. The expressionistic graphics filling Bibles, commentaries, and most especially the Commentary of Beatus yielded to other graphic approaches.
Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts
The Romanesque period (c. 1000–1150 CE) saw renewed religious fervor and even stronger feudalism. Europeans launched some ten crusades in a vigorous effort to conquer the Holy Lands. Monasticism reached its peak, and large liturgical books, including Bibles, Gospels, and psalters, were produced in the booming scriptoria. For the first time, universal design characteristics seemed possible, as visual ideas traveled back and forth on the pilgrimage routes. The illusionistic revival of the Carolingian era yielded to a new emphasis on linear drawing and a willingness to distort figures to meld with the overall design of the page. The representation of deep space became even less important, and figures were placed against backgrounds of gold leaf or textured patterns.
During the middle of the twelfth century the Romanesque period evolved into the Gothic, which lasted from 1150 CE until the European Renaissance began in fourteenth-century Italy. This transitional period saw the power of the feudal lords constrained by reasonable laws. Towns and villages grew into cities. Agriculture yielded to international trade as the foundation of political power, and money replaced land as the primary measure of wealth. European society was slowly transformed. Particularly in France and England, monarchies were supported by powerful noblemen, enabling more stable central governments to emerge. Uncertainty and fear, the daily companions of medieval peoples for centuries, diminished as the social and economic environment became more predictable, overcoming the wildly inconsistent conditions that prevailed in Romanesque times.
During the 1200s the rise of the universities created an expanding market for books. For example, twenty thousand of Paris’s hundred thousand residents were students who flocked to the city to attend the university there. Literacy was on the rise, and professional lay illuminators emerged to help meet the growing demand for books. The Pauline Epistles (Fig. 4-17) is an elegant example of the French Gothic style.
The Book of Revelation had a surge of unexplained popularity in England and France during the 1200s. A scriptorium at Saint Albans with high artistic standards seems to have figured prominently in this development. At least ninety-three copies of the Apocalypse survive from this period. A straightforward naturalism anchored in this world rather than a future one supplanted the horror and anxiety of the earlier Spanish editions.
The Douce Apocalypse (Fig. 4-18), written and illustrated around 1265 CE, is one of the many masterpieces of Gothic illumination. Each of the hundred illustrated pages (three are now missing) has an illustration above two columns of beautifully lettered text. The scribe used a lettering style whose repetition of verticals capped with pointed serifs has been compared to a picket fence. Textura (from the Latin texturum, meaning woven fabric or texture) is the favored name for this dominant mode of Gothic lettering. Other terms, such as the French lettre de forme and the English black letter and Old English, are vague and misleading. During its time, textura was called litteramoderna (Latin for “modern lettering”). Textura was quite functional, for all the vertical strokes in a word were drawn first, then serifs and the other strokes needed to transform the group of verticals into a word were added. Rounded strokes were almost eliminated. Letters and the spaces between them were condensed in an effort to save space on the precious parchment. The overall effect is one of a dense black texture.
On each page of the Douce Apocalypse, an open square is left in the upper-left corner for an initial, but these letters were never added. Some illustrations, drawn but never painted, show an even line of great sensitivity and decisiveness. The illustrations are divided into segments by elaborate framing. In the illustration for the last passage of the seventh survived the great tribulation are shown surrounding a very human-looking God with his Lamb. Saint John’s soft-blue robe and rust-brown cloak set the tone for a mellow palette of blues, greens, reds, browns, grays, and yellows.
The Douce Apocalypse represents a new breed of picture book that established the page design of the fifteenth-century woodblock books that emerged after printing came to Europe. The scribe and illuminator are not known; in fact, scholars have argued over whether this book was created in England or France. This blurring of national origin evidences the trend toward an international Gothic style that pervaded the late Gothic period. It is characterized by elongated figures that rise upward in a vertical movement, often wearing elegant, fashionable costumes or flowing robes. Even though the figures are pulled upward, there is a conviction of solid, almost monumental weight and an expression of human dignity. Increased naturalism was seen in human, animal, and botanical subjects. Elements from the national styles of various countries were combined, and growing numbers of commissions for private books, particularly from royal patrons, enabled scribes and illuminators to travel and disseminate artistic conventions and techniques.
Liturgical books of the late medieval era contained extraordinary designs. The Ormesby Psalter (Fig. 4-19), created during the early 1300s in England, is a splendid example. Its generous 33.6-centimeter (about 13.5-inch) height allowed for illustrated capital initials containing biblical scenes on gold-leaf backgrounds. The large text is written in the textura writing style. The text area is surrounded by an intricate frame filled with decorative pattern capital initials and rich marginalia, which are thought to be visual clues suggesting appropriate parables and stories for the priest to tell the congregation after completing the scriptural reading. The page illustrated in Figure 4-19 has an owl/horse conferring with a man/snail at the top. At the bottom, a demon smugly watches a betrothal. The young maiden eagerly reaches for the falconer’s engagement ring; the symbolic cat and mouse below the couple hint that someone is being victimized. The everyday life of the people had found its way into the margins of religious books. Some historians have seen this as an early indication of an approaching Renaissance humanism, with its concern for the quality of human life on earth.
After the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE, and again after the Romans crushed Jewish revolts in 70 CE and 135 CE, the Jewish population in Israel was dispersed. Following the second revolt against the Romans, Israel ceased to exist as a political entity. The Jewish people, religion, and culture lived on in the Diaspora (Greek for “dispersion” or “scattering”) throughout the known world. Surviving Judaic illuminated manuscripts produced across Europe during the medieval epoch are treasured masterworks of graphic design. The common belief that Judaic traditions rejected figurative art is not entirely true. Artistic embellishment for educational reasons or to adorn religious objects, including manuscripts, was encouraged as a means of expressing reverence for sacred objects and writings. Many of the finest Judaic illuminated manuscripts are Haggadot, containing Jewish religious literature, including historical stories and proverbs—especially the saga of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The Mainz Haggadah, copied by Moses ben Nathan Oppenheim in 1726 (Fig. 4-20), is an exemplary representative of this genre. The title page features both calligraphy and a typographic layout framed on the left by Moses holding the Ten Commandments and on the right by Aaron. A double page spread (Fig. 4-21) shows two images: Mount Sinai, and Pharaoh and his army drowning in the Red Sea. Typographic layout implies melody associated with rhythm and repetition of the buoyant Passover song through spacing and symbols.
The word was supreme; pictures played a supporting role and were pushed into generous margins at the sides or bottom of the space. The artist created illustrations using a delicately detailed pen-and-colored-ink technique. Drawings of people and animals are executed with great sensitivity.
Judaic illuminated manuscripts are relatively rare, but surviving copies evidence remarkable scholarship, meticulous illustrations, and calligraphic beauty.
Islam, one of the world’s great religions, emerged from Muhammad’s teachings as recorded in the Qur’an. This sacred book forms the divine authority for religious, social, and civil life in Islamic societies stretching south from the Baltic Sea to equatorial Africa, and eastward from the Atlantic coast of Africa to Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of manuscript copies of the Qur’an have been made, from small pocket-sized versions to lavishly ornamented imperial editions. Muhammad called upon his followers to learn to read and write, and calligraphy quickly became an important tool for religion and government. His advocacy of women’s literacy resulted in many important female calligraphers and scholars. A love of books permeates Islamic cultures; libraries were larger in Islamic regions and manuscript production was far more prolific than in Europe. From the eighth to the fifteenth century CE. Islamic science was without peer, and over ten thousand scientific manuscripts from this epoch survive.
Islamic manuscript decoration emerged from modest origins. Early calligraphers who wrote seventh- and eighth-century copies of the Qur’an made their vowel marks ornate and drew rosettes to separate verses. Over the centuries, ornamentation became increasingly elaborate, with intricate geometric and arabesque designs filling the space to become transcendental expressions of the sacred nature of the Qur’an (Fig. 4-22). Geometric shapes containing calligraphy are surrounded by rhythmic organic designs ranging from plant forms to abstract arabesques.
Figurative illustrations were not utilized because Islamic society embraced the principle of aniconism, which is religious opposition to representations of living creatures. This was based on a belief that only God could create life and that mortals should not make figures of living things or create images that might be used as idols. While this principle was strictly upheld in many Muslim areas, such as North Africa and Egypt, pictures were tolerated in some Islamic regions as long as they were restricted to private quarters and palace harems.
Probably before the year 1000 CE, miniature paintings appeared in Persian books and became an important aspect of book illumination. Artists in Persia (now Iran) developed the defining attributes of illustrated Islamic manuscripts because the ruling shahs patronized the creation of masterworks containing elaborate detail, precise patterns, and vibrant color. Some of the finest Islamic manuscripts were designed during the Safavid dynasty (1502–1736); the influence of Persian artists spread to the Ottoman Empire (a domain founded by Turkish tribes, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and ruled a vast empire for over four hundred years) and to the Mughals (also called Moguls—Muslims from Mongol, Turkey, and Persia who conquered and ruled India from 1526 to 1857). Mughal emperors established a major school of Islamic illumination after bringing Persian artists to India in the sixteenth century to train local artists. Birds, animals, plants, and architecture native to the region were incorporated into Mughal manuscripts.
Figure 4-23 typifies the illustrated Islamic manuscript. The professional and personal life of Indian Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58), who built masterworks of architecture, including the Taj Mahal, is recounted and illustrated with full-page and double-page illustrations. Calligraphic writing is contained in intricate panels. Open spaces between the lines of calligraphy are filled with organic gold configurations determined by the word shapes. These negative spaces become concrete forms. Text and illustrations are framed with multiple lines and surrounded by complex ornamental borders ranging from floral arabesques to repetitive patterns and architectonic geometric structures.
The meticulously painted illustrations are in the great tradition of Persian painting, which was primarily a book illustrator’s art dating from the 1300s. Space is flat and shallow; ground and floor planes are parallel to the picture plane. Figures and objects are described by meticulous contour lines containing flat, or sometimes subtly modulated, planes of color. Tonal modulation and light-and-shadow patterns are usually minimal or nonexistent. Architecture is defined by geometric planes. Intricate decorative patterns are applied to carpets, clothing, and structures. Plants are drawn as schematic stylizations, with careful attention to detail and a profuse repetition of blossoms and leaves. Chromatic energy is achieved through warm/cool and light/dark color combinations.
Islamic manuscript design had a long and varied tradition, with numerous schools, influences, and aesthetic approaches. Geographic proximity with Asia in the east and Europe in the west permitted an assimilation of design ideas from other cultures. For over a thousand years Islamic manuscripts maintained traditions of artistic excellence, with production continuing long after typographic printing completely replaced manuscript books elsewhere. Major works were commissioned recently as the nineteenth century.
Late medieval illuminated manuscripts
During the transitional decades, as the medieval era yielded to the European Renaissance, the production of illuminated manuscripts for private use became increasingly important. In the early 1400s the Book of Hours became Europe’s most popular book (Fig. 4-24). This private devotional volume contained prayers, religious texts for each hour of the day, and calendars listing the days of important saints. The pinnacle of the European illuminated book was reached in the early fifteenth century, when French nobleman Jean, duc de Berry (1340–1416), a passionate lover of beautiful books and brother of King Charles V, installed the Limbourg brothers, of Dutch origin, in his castle to establish a private scriptorium. The duc de Berry owned one of the largest private libraries in the world at that time, with 155 books, including fourteen Bibles and fifteen Books of Hours.
Little is known about the brief lives of Paul, Herman, and Jean Limbourg. It is believed that all three were born after 1385. Sons of a Dutch wood sculptor, all three apprenticed as goldsmiths and then probably trained at an important Paris scriptorium after 1400. The duc de Berry employed Paul Limbourg in 1408 to head his workshop. Paul was probably the designer responsible for layout and design. Apparently a close rapport developed between patron and designer/illustrator, for on New Year’s Day of 1411 the Limbourg brothers gave the duke a bogus book consisting of a wooden block bound in white velvet and locked with an enameled clasp decorated with his coat of arms.
In the early fifteenth century the Limbourgs were in the vanguard of an evolution in the interpretation of visual experience. The Gothic tendency toward abstraction and stylized presentation was reversed as they sought a convincing realism. Atmospheric perspective was used to push planes and volumes back in deep space, and a consistent effort toward achieving linear perspective was made. The Limbourgs’ exceptional gifts of observation combined with remarkable painting skill enabled them to propel illuminated book design and illustration to its zenith. Their work conveys a strong sense of mass and volume; in some illustrations highlights and cast shadows are created by a single light source.
The Limbourg brothers’ masterpiece was Les tres riches heures du duc de Berry (Figs. 4-25 and 4-26). The first twenty-four pages are an illustrated calendar. Each month has a double-page spread with a genre illustration relating to seasonal activities of the month on the left page and a calendar of the saints’ days on the right. The illustrations are crowned with graphic astronomical charts depicting constellations and the phases of the moon. The winter farm scene for February includes a cutaway building with people warming themselves by a fire. The calendar page uses vibrant red and blue inks for the lettering. A pencil grid structure established the format containing the information.
Les tres riches heures is a pictorial book. Illustrations dominate the page layouts. Some pages have a mere four lines of text lettered in two columns under the illustrations. Decorated initials spin off whirling acanthus foliage, which is sometimes accompanied by angels, animals, or flowers in the generous margins.
Apprentices were kept busy grinding colors on a marble slab with a muller. The medium consisted of water mixed with arabic or tragacanth gum as a binder to adhere the pigment to the vellum and preserve the image. The Limbourg brothers used a palette of ten colors, plus black and white. The colors included cobalt and ultramarine blue and two greens, one made from a carbonate of copper, the other from iris leaves. Gold leaf and gold-powder paint were used in profusion. The minute detail achieved implies the use of a magnifying lens.
The Limbourg brothers did not live to complete this masterpiece, for all three died before February 1416, and the duc de Berry died on 15 July 1416; perhaps they were victims of a terrible epidemic or plague believed to have swept through France that year. The inventory of the duke’s library, taken after his death, indicates that half his books were religious works, a third were history books, and volumes on geography, astronomy, and astrology rounded out the collection.
During the same years when the Limbourgs were creating handmade books, a new means of visual communication—woodblock printing—appeared in Europe. The invention of movable type in the West was but three decades away. The production of illuminated manuscripts continued through the fifteenth century and even into the early decades of the sixteenth century, but this thousand-year-old craft, dating back to antiquity, was doomed to extinction by the typographic book.