I just saw that it is World Calligraphy Day today (noticing all these “(inter)national days of X” seems to be a product of hanging out on Twitter!). This got me thinking about what we mean when we say ‘calligraphy’. The word comes from Greek and means simply “beautiful writing” – which in practice can mean a whole range of things.


Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Image from HERE.

Today we tend to think of calligraphy as an art that involves writing in ink with special pens on fancy paper. You can do it in any writing system from around the world – Wikipedia has a nice range of examples in its calligraphy entry HERE. The above page from the 8th century AD illuminated Lindisfarne gospels is a typical piece of monastic medieval calligraphy from northern England, while below is an 11th century AD work from the Chinese Song dynasty, On Calligraphy by Mi Fu.


On Calligraphy by Mi Fu. Image from HERE.

So at its basis, calligraphy is all about writing beautifully – and what that means depends very much on your own writing traditions. Literacy is a concern here too, because the concept of writing beautifully requires some sort of audience to appreciate it, even if that audience is a very restricted one. Turning to the ancient world, since that is what we are working on at CREWS, there is regrettably very little to tell us what people thought about the appearance of writing. Many examples of writing are simply functional – they are there to record or convey the message contained in them (be they bureaucratic clay tablets, letters on papyrus, political inscriptions on stone, etc).


Artist’s impression of the work of Mycenaean scribes, from the cover of John Chadwick’s book The Mycenaean World.

But one context in which the appearance of writing is important is when it is incorprated into the decoration of an object. In the Mycenaean world, for example, writing was used almost exclusively – as far as we can tell from surviving evidence – on clay documents, but a small number of painted ‘stirrup jars’ (which were used as storage containers) feature painted decoration incorporating writing. And in this context writing looks rather different from the way it looks in a clay document, with large and more flowing signs written in paint.


A Mycenaean clay tablet and inscribed stirrup jar.

Other decorative objects from the ancient world show a similar tendency to make writing look more elaborate in a decorative context. Look at the clay ball (probably an everyday administrative clay document type) and gold ring below, both inscribed with the Bronze Age Cypro-Minoan script from Cyprus. While the shape of signs on the gold ring (the four signs above the horizontal line) is not very different from those in the clay ball, it is interesting that they have been made to be similar in size and similarly decorative to the abstract symbols (a flower? and sunburst) below the line.

clay ball.jpgCM gold ring

Cypro-Minoan clay ball and gold ring. Images courtesy of Silvia Ferrara.

Going ahead from the Late Bronze Age to the 8th century BC and the first surviving examples of the Greek alphabet, we again find that there was a tendency to incorporate writing into decorative objects, or to add inscriptions to already decorative objects in a way that was sympathetic to their decoration. This may have had something to do with the usage of such items – the oenochoe or wine jug below, for example, would have been used at feasts and could have added an element of what we often refer to as status display (or in other words “look how beautiful/clever/accomplished my wine jug is; I bet you don’t have one so lovely!”).


The Dipylon oenochoe. Image courtesy of Natalia Elvira Astoreca.

The Etruscans similarly found writing a fitting decoration for elaborate objects – which gives me an excuse to wheel out my favourite abecedarium, the one written around a bucchero ware cockerel from the 7th century BC. Notice how the letters of the alphabet are made to curve around beneath the depiction of the bird’s feathers.


Bucchero vessel in the shape of a cockerel. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1924. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/251482.

Calligraphy is by no means a modern phenomenon, but the degree to which we might think about the attractiveness of writing naturally changes over time and in different situations. Ancient Egypt at its height provides a special example, because we know that literacy in ancient Egypt was somewhat different – the art of the scribe was limited to the scribal class and was employed in highly decorative contexts where image and word were closely integrated with each other. What better context could there be to apply the word calligraphy?

DT257846 detail

Detail from coffin of Khnumnakht, Middle Kingdom. Met Museum New York, Rogers Fund, 1915 (http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544326).

Leaving the Mediterranean for more exotic climes, I will just finish this survey with a mention of Mayan writing. Literacy was probably quite restricted in the Mayan world, which is also suggested by the elaborate costumes of scribes depicted in Mayan art. Mayan writing was again often incorprated into decorative contexts, from large carvings on public display to the elaborate designs found in codices and on clay vessels (like the Princeton Vase depicted below). And what is significant is that the decorative nature of the context has a clear relationship with the nature of the script, with signs often elaborated and glyphs sometimes drawn as full human or animal figures.


Image from the Princeton Art Museum. Late Classic, Maya (‘Codex’ style) The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670–750. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco h. 21.5 cm., diam. 16.6 cm. (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.) Museum purchase, gift of the Hans A. Widenmann, Class of 1918, and Dorothy Widenmann Foundation Place made: Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala y1975-17.

So happy World Calligraphy Day – and if you want to celebrate, why not try writing your name or a short message in an ancient writing system? You can find our ‘write your name’ sheets for the Greek alphabet, Phoenician, Ugaritic and Linear B in our resources section HERE if you need some inspiration. (And if you do trying writing something, please do take pictures and send them to us! You can email us at crews@classics.cam.ac.uk or find us on Twitter where we’re @crewsproject.)


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Pippa Steele

2 thoughts on “Writing beautifully

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