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An Ottoman ijazah written in Arabic certifying competence in calligraphy, 1206 AH/1791 AD
An Ottoman ijazah written in Arabic certifying competence in calligraphy, 1206 AH/1791 AD

Calligraphy (from Greek kallos "beauty" + graph "writing") is a type of visual art. It is often called the art of fancy lettering (Mediavilla 1996: 17). A contemporary definition of calligraphic practice is "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious and skillful manner" (Mediavilla 1996: 18). The story of writing is one of aesthetic evolution framed within the technical skills, transmission speed(s) and material limitations of a person, time and place (Diringer 1968: 441). A style of writing is described as a script, hand or alphabet (Fraser and Kwiatkowski 2006; Johnston 1909: Plate 6).

Modern calligraphy ranges from functional hand-lettered inscriptions and designs to fine-art pieces where the abstract expression of the handwritten mark may or may not compromise the legibility of the letters (Mediavilla 1996). Classical calligraphy differs from typography and non-classical hand-lettering, though a calligrapher may create all of these; characters are historically disciplined yet fluid and spontaneous, at the moment of writing (Pott 2006 and 2005; Zapf 2007 and 2006).

Calligraphy continues to flourish in the forms of wedding and event invitations, font design/typography, original hand-lettered logo design, religious art, announcements/graphic design/commissioned calligraphic art, cut stone inscriptions and memorial documents. It is also used for props and moving images for film and television, testimonials, birth and death certificates, maps, and other works involving writing (see for example Letter Arts Review; Propfe 2005; Geddes and Dion 2004). Some of the finest works of modern calligraphy are charters and letters patent issued by monarchs and officers of state in various countries.


Western calligraphy

Modern Western calligraphy by Denis Brown
Modern Western calligraphy by Denis Brown

Tools and techniques


A calligraphic pen head, with parts names. The principal tools for a calligrapher are the pen, which may be flat-balled or round-nibbed, and the brush (Reaves and Schulte 2006; Child 1985; Lamb 1956). For some decorative purposes, multi-nibbed pens—steel brushes—can be used. However, works have also been made with felt-tip and ballpoint pens, although these works do not employ angled lines. Ink for writing is usually water-based and much less viscous than the oil based inks used in printing. High quality paper, which has good consistency of porosity, will enable cleaner lines, although parchment or vellum is often used, as a knife can be used to erase work on them and a light box is not needed to allow lines to pass through it. In addition, light boxes and templates are used to achieve straight lines without pencil markings detracting from the work. Ruled paper, either for a light box or direct use, is most often ruled every quarter or half inch, although inch spaces are occasionally used, such as with litterea unciales (hence the name), and college ruled paper acts as a guideline often as well.[1]

Pens may be obtained from various stationery sources - from the traditional "nib" pens dipped in ink, to calligraphy pens that have cartridges built-in, avoiding the need to have to continually dip them into inkwells.

Styles & techniques

Sacred Western calligraphy has some special features, such as the illumination of the first letter of each book or chapter in medieval times. A decorative "carpet page" may precede the literature, filled with ornate, geometrical depictions of bold-hued animals. The Lindisfarne Gospels (715-720 AD) are an early example (Brown 2004).

As with Chinese or Arabian calligraphies, Western calligraphic script had strict rules and shapes. Quality writing had a rhythm and regularity to the letters, with a "geometrical" order of the lines on the page. Each character had, and often still has, a precise stroke order.

Unlike a typeface, irregularity in the characters' size, style and colors adds meaning to the Greek translation "beautiful letters". The content may be completely illegible, but no less meaningful to a viewer with some empathy for the work on view. Many of the themes and variations of today's contemporary Western calligraphy are found in the pages of The Saint John's Bible. A particularly modern example is The Holy Bible, Timothy Botts Illustrated edition (Tyndale House Publishers 2000), with 360 calligraphic images as well as a calligraphy typeface.

Historical developments

Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. This bible was hand written in Belgium, by Gerard Brils, for reading aloud in a monastery.
Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. This bible was hand written in Belgium, by Gerard Brils, for reading aloud in a monastery.

three alphabets]]. Western calligraphy is recognizable by the use of the Latin script. The Latin alphabet appeared about 600 BC, in Rome, and by the first century developed into Roman imperial capitals carved on stones, Rustic capitals painted on walls, and Roman cursive for daily use. In the second and third centuries the uncial lettering style developed. As writing withdrew to monasteries, uncial script was found more suitable for copying the Bible and other religious texts. It was the monasteries which preserved calligraphic traditions during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Roman Empire fell and Europe entered the Dark Ages.[2]

At the height of the Roman Empire its power reached as far as Great Britain; when the empire fell, its literary influence remained. The Semi-uncial generated the Irish Semi-uncial, the small Anglo-Saxon. Each region seems to have developed its own standards following the main monastery of the region (i.e. Merovingian script, Laon script, Luxeuil script, Visigothic script, Beneventan script), which are mostly cursive and hardly readable.

The rising Carolingian Dynasty Empire encouraged a new standardized script, which was developed by several famous monasteries (including Corbie Abbey and Beauvais) around the eighth century. The script from Saint Martin of Tours was ultimately set as the Imperial standard, named the Carolingian script (or "the Caroline"). From the powerful Carolingian Empire, this standard also became used in neighboring kingdoms.

In the eleventh century, the Caroline evolved into the Gothic script, which was more compact and made it possible to fit more text on a page.[3] The Gothic calligraphy styles became dominant throughout Europe; and in 1454, when Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press in Mainz, Germany, he adopted the Gothic style, making it the first typeface.[4]

In the 15th century, the rediscovery of old Carolingian texts encouraged the creation of the humanist minuscule or littera antiqua. The 17th century saw the Batarde script from France, and the 18th century saw the English script spread across Europe and world by their books.

The contemporary typefaces used by computers, from simple word processing programs like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages to professional designers' software packages like Adobe InDesign, owe a considerable debt to the past and to a small number of professional typeface designers today (Zapf 2007; Mediavilla 2006; Henning 2002).


Several other Western styles use the same tools and practices, but differ by the characters set, and by stylistic preferences. For Slavonic lettering, the history of the slavonic and consequently Russian writing systems differs fundamentally from the one of the Latin language. It evolved from the 10th century to today.

Eastern Asian calligraphy

Names, tools and techniques


The local name for calligraphy is Sh f in China, literally "The way/method/law of writing";[5] Shod in Japan, literally "The way/principle of writing"; and Seoye ( ) in Korea, literally "The art of writing". The calligraphy of East Asian characters is an important and appreciated aspect of East Asian culture.


Traditional East Asian writing uses the Four Treasures of the Study (T: / S: ) : the ink brushes to write Chinese characters, Chinese ink, paper, and inkstone, known as the Four Friends of the Study (HG: / HJ: ) in Korea. In addition to these four tools, desk pads and paperweights are also used by calligraphers.


The shape, size, stretch and hair type of the ink brush, the color, color density and water density of the ink, as well as the paper's water absorption speed and surface texture are the main physical parameters influencing the final result. The calligrapher also influences the result by the quantity of ink/water he lets the brush take, then by the pressure, inclination, and direction he gives to the brush, producing thinner or bolder strokes, and smooth or toothed borders. Eventually, the speed, accelerations, decelerations of the writer's moves, turns, and crochets, and the stroke order give the "spirit" to the characters, by influencing greatly their final shapes.

Historical evolution

A Vietnamese calligraphist writing in h n t in preparation for T t, at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi (2011)

Ancient China

In ancient China, the oldest Chinese characters existing are Ji g w n characters carved on ox scapula and tortoise plastrons,because the dominators in Shang Dynasty carved pits on such animals's bones and then baked them to gain auspice of military affairs, agricultural harvest,or even procreating and weather,etc. During the divination ceremony, after the cracks were made, the characters were written with a brush on the shell or bone to be later carved.(Keightley, 1978). With the development of J nw n (Bronzeware script) and D zhu n (Large Seal Script) "cursive" signs continued. Moreover, each archaic kingdom of current China had its own set of characters.

Imperial China

In Imperial China, the graphs on old steles some dating from 200 BC, and in Xiaozhuan style are still accessible.

About 220 BC, the emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first to conquer the entire Chinese basin, imposed several reforms, among them Li Si's character unification, which created a set of 3300 standardized Xi ozhu n characters.[6] Despite the fact that the main writing implement of the time was already the brush, few papers survive from this period, and the main examples of this style are on steles.

The L sh style (clerical script) which is more regularized, and in some ways similar to modern text, have been also authorised under Qin Shi Huangdi.[7]

K ish style (traditional regular script) still in use today and attributed to Wang Xizhi ( , 303-361) and his followers, is even more regularized.[7] Its spread was encouraged by Emperor Mingzong of Later Tang (926-933), who ordered the printing of the classics using new wooden blocks in Kaishu. Printing technologies here allowed a shape stabilization. The Kaishu shape of characters 1000 years ago was mostly similar to that at the end of Imperial China.[7] But small changes have be made, for example in the shape of which is not absolutely the same in the Kangxi Dictionary of 1716 as in modern books. The Kangxi and current shapes have tiny differences, while stroke order is still the same, according to old style.[8]

Styles which did not survive include B f nsh , a mix made of Xiaozhuan style at 80%, and Lishu at 20%.[7] Some Variant Chinese characters were unorthodox or locally used for centuries. They were generally understood but always rejected in official texts. Some of these unorthodox variants, in addition to some newly created characters, compose the Simplified Chinese character set.

Cursive styles and hand-written styles

Cursive styles such as X ngsh (semi-cursive or running script) and C osh (cursive or grass script) are less constrained and faster, where more movements made by the writing implement are visible. These styles' stroke orders vary more, sometimes creating radically different forms. They are descended from Clerical script, in the same time as Regular script (Han Dynasty), but X ngsh and C osh were use for personal notes only, and were never used as standard. Caoshu style was highly appreciated in Emperor Wu of Han reign (140-87).[7]

Printed and computer styles

Examples of modern printed styles are Song from the Song Dynasty's printing press, and sans-serif. These are not considered traditional styles, and are normally not written.


Japanese calligraphy, the word "peace" and the signature of the Meiji period calligrapher ura Kanetake, 1910

Other calligraphies

Japanese and Korean people developed specific sensibilities and styles of calligraphies. By example, Japanese calligraphy go out of the set of CJK strokes to also include local alphabets such as hiragana and katakana, with specific problematics such as new curves and moves. In the case of Korean calligraphy, the Hangeul and the existence of the circle required the creation of a new technique which usually confuses Chinese calligraphers. The existence of temporary calligraphy is also to notice, which is a practice of water-only calligraphy on the floor which, indeed, dry out within minutes. This practice is especially appreciated by the new generation of retired Chinese in public parks of China. These will often open studio-shops in tourist towns offering traditional Chinese calligraphy to tourists. Other than writing the clients name, they also sell fine brushes as souvenirs and lime stone carved stamps.

Mongolian calligraphy is also influenced by Chinese calligraphy, from tools to style.

Other arts

Calligraphy has influenced ink and wash painting, which is accomplished using similar tools and techniques. Calligraphy has influenced most major art styles in East Asia, including Ink and wash painting, a style of Chinese, Korean, Japanese painting, and Vietnamese painting based entirely on calligraphy.

South Asian Calligraphy

Indian calligraphy

An illustrated manuscript of the Mahabharata with calligraphy
An illustrated manuscript of the Mahabharata with calligraphy
On the subject of Indian calligraphy, writes: A Calligraphic design in Oriya script

A oka's edicts (c. 265 238 BC) were committed to stone. These inscriptions are stiff and angular in form. Following the A oka style of Indic writing, two new calligraphic types appear: Kharo and Br hm . Kharo was used in the northwestern regions of India from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century of the Christian Era, and it was used in Central Asia until the 8th century.

In many parts of ancient India, the inscriptions were carried out in smoke-treated palm leaves. This tradition dates back to over two thousand years.[9] Even after the Indian languages were put on paper in the 13th century, palm leaves where considered a preferred medium of writing owing to its longevity (nearly 400 years) compared to paper. Both sides of the leaves were used for writing. Long rectangular strips were gathered on top of one another, holes were drilled through all the leaves, and the book was held together by string. Books of this manufacture were common to Southeast Asia. The palm leaf was an excellent surface for penwriting, making possible the delicate lettering used in many of the scripts of southern Asia.

Burnt clay and Copper were a favoured material for Indic inscriptions. In the north of India, birch bark was used as a writing surface as early as the 2nd century AD.

Nepalese calligraphy

Nepalese calligraphy has a huge impact on Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Ranjana script is the primary form of this calligraphy. The script itself and its derivatives (like Lantsa, Phagpa, Kutila) are used in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Leh, Mongolia, coastal China, Japan and Korea to write "Om mane pame om" and other sacred Buddhist texts, mainly those derived from Sanskrit and Pali.

Tibetan calligraphy

A B n text
A B n text
Calligraphy is central in Tibetan culture. The script is derived from Indic scripts. The nobles of Tibet, such as the High Lamas and inhabitants of the Potala Palace, were usually capable calligraphers. Tibet has been a center of Buddhism for several centuries, and that religion places a great deal of significance on written word. This does not provide for a large body of secular pieces, although they do exist (but are usually related in some way to Tibetan Buddhism). Almost all high religious writing involved calligraphy, including letters sent by the Dalai Lama and other religious and secular authority. Calligraphy is particularly evident on their prayer wheels, although this calligraphy was forged rather than scribed, much like Arab and Roman calligraphy is often found on buildings. Although originally done with a reed, Tibetan calligraphers now use chisel tipped pens and markers as well.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

A page of a 12th century Qur'an written in the Andalusi script
A page of a 12th century Qur'an written in the Andalusi script
Islamic calligraphy (calligraphy in Arabic is Khatt ul-Yad ) has evolved alongside the religion of Islam and the Arabic language. As it is based on Arabic letters, some call it "Arabic calligraphy". However the term "Islamic calligraphy" is a more appropriate term as it comprises all works of calligraphy by the Muslim calligraphers from Morocco to China.

Islamic calligraphy is associated with geometric Islamic art (arabesque) on the walls and ceilings of mosques as well as on the page. Contemporary artists in the Islamic world draw on the heritage of calligraphy to use calligraphic inscriptions or abstractions.

Instead of recalling something related to the spoken word, calligraphy for Muslims is a visible expression of the highest art of all, the art of the spiritual world. Calligraphy has arguably become the most venerated form of Islamic art because it provides a link between the languages of the Muslims with the religion of Islam. The holy book of Islam, al-Qur'an, has played an important role in the development and evolution of the Arabic language, and by extension, calligraphy in the Arabic alphabet. Proverbs and passages from the Qur'an are still sources for Islamic calligraphy.

It is generally accepted that Islamic calligraphy excelled during the Ottoman era. Turkish calligraphers still present the most refined and creative works. Istanbul is an open exhibition hall for all kinds and varieties of calligraphy, from inscriptions in mosques to fountains, schools, houses, etc.

Persian calligraphy

Example showing Nastaliq's proportional rules
Example showing Nastaliq's proportional rules
Shikasta Nasta l q
Shikasta Nasta l q

Persian calligraphy is the calligraphy of Persian writing system. The history of calligraphy in Persia dates back to the pre-Islam era. In Zoroastrianism beautiful and clear writings were always praised.

History and evolution

It is believed that ancient Persian script was invented by about 600-500 BC to provide monument inscriptions for the Achaemenid kings. These scripts consisted of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal nail-shape letters and that is the reason in Persian it is called "Script of Nails/Cuneiform Script" (Khat-e-Mikhi). Centuries later, other scripts such as "Pahlavi" and "Avestan" scripts were used in ancient Persia.

After the Arab conquest in the 7th century, Persians adapted the Arabic alphabet to fit the Persian language and developed a contemporary Persian alphabet. The Arabic alphabet has 28 characters to which Iranians added another four letters for it to fit the sounds and letters of the Persian language that do not exist in Arabic.

Contemporary scripts

"Nasta'liq" is the most popular contemporary style among classical Persian calligraphy scripts and Persian calligraphers call it "Bride of the Calligraphy Scripts". This calligraphy style has been based on such a strong structure that it has changed very little since. Mir Ali Tabrizi had found the optimum composition of the letters and graphical rules so it has just been fine-tuned during the past seven centuries. It has very strict rules for graphical shape of the letters and for combination of the letters, words, and composition of the whole calligraphy piece.

Other isolated calligraphies

Mayan Glyphs

A leaflet of the Dresden Codex written in the Mayan Script on a type of paper called amatl. The Dresden Codex is one of only a few examples of Maya Calligraphy to escape the destruction of the Spanish Conquistadores and survive to the present day.
A leaflet of the Dresden Codex written in the Mayan Script on a type of paper called amatl. The Dresden Codex is one of only a few examples of Maya Calligraphy to escape the destruction of the Spanish Conquistadores and survive to the present day.

Mayan calligraphy was expressed via Mayan hieroglyphs; modern Mayan calligraphy is mainly used on seals and monuments in the Yucat n Peninsula in Mexico. Mayan hieroglyphs are rarely used in government offices, however in Campeche, Yucat n and Quintana Roo, Mayan calligraphy is written in Latin letters. Some commercial companies in Southern Mexico use Mayan hieroglyphs as symbols of their business. Some community associations and modern Mayan brotherhoods use Mayan hieroglyphs as symbols of their groups.

Most of the archaeological sites in Mexico such as Chichen Itza, Labna, Uxmal, Edzna, Calakmul, etc. have glyphs in their structures. Stone carved monuments also known as stele are a common source of ancient Mayan calligraphy.


Graffiti also shares attributes similar to Calligraphy in being an expressive form of writing style. Although graffiti is often seen as destruction and vandalism to society, over the decades graffiti has emerged as passionate art, showing expression of style, culture, and identity. Graffiti has come to be regarded as another form of writing style. Both calligraphy and graffiti share similar attributes where different cultures and communities use varying tools and techniques to make their own distinct and unique visual lettering. Graffiti itself is an art form, very unappreciated by most, because the only place that most people see it is in an illegal form.

See also

People and groups

  • Ellesmere Chaucer
  • Marc Drogin - Author of : Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique , and Calligraphy of the Middle Ages and How to Do It Tools
  • Ink
  • International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting
  • List of calligraphers
  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Stylus


  • Asemic writing
  • Calligram
  • Chirography
  • Codex Seraphinianus
  • Concrete poetry
  • List of typographic features
  • Micrography
  • Penmanship
  • Punchcutting
  • Typographic Emphasis
  • Typographic units
  • Typography
  • Voynich manuscript



Asemic Writing & Abstract calligraphy See respective articles.

  • .
  • Brown, M.P. (2004) Painted Labyrinth: The World of the Lindisfarne Gospel. Revised Ed. British Library.
  • Child, H. ed. (1985) The Calligrapher's Handbook. Taplinger Publishing Co.
  • Diringer, D. (1968) The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind 3rd Ed. Volume 1 Hutchinson & Co. London
  • Fraser, M., & Kwiatowski, W. (2006) Ink and Gold: Islamic Calligraphy. Sam Fogg Ltd. London
  • Geddes, A., & Dion, C. (2004) Miracle: a celebration of new life. Photogenique Publishers Auckland.
  • Henning, W.E. (2002) An elegant hand : the golden age of American penmanship and calligraphy ed. Melzer, P. Oak Knoll Press New Castle, Delaware
  • Johnston, E. (1909) Manuscript & Inscription Letters: For schools and classes and for the use of craftsmen, plate 6. San Vito Press & Double Elephant Press 10th Impression
  • Lamb, C.M. ed. (1956) Calligrapher's Handbook. Pentalic 1976 ed.
  • Letter Arts Review
  • Mediavilla, Claude (2006) Histoire de la Calligraphie Fran aise. Albin Michel, France.
  • Mediavilla, C. (1996) Calligraphy. Scirpus Publications
  • Pott, G. (2006) Kalligrafie: Intensiv Training Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz
  • Pott, G. (2005) Kalligrafie:Erste Hilfe und Schrift-Training mit Muster-Alphabeten Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz
  • Propfe, J. (2005) SchreibKunstRaume: Kalligraphie im Raum Verlag George D.W. Callwey GmbH & Co.K.G. Munich
  • Reaves, M., & Schulte, E. (2006) Brush Lettering: An instructional manual in Western brush calligraphy, Revised Edition, Design Books New York.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. (1984) Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York Univ. Press. New York.
  • Zapf, H. (2007) Alphabet Stories: A Chronicle of technical developments, Cary Graphic Arts Press, Rochester, New York
  • Zapf, H. (2006) The world of Alphabets: A kaleidoscope of drawings and letterforms, CD-ROM
  • Marns, F.A (2002) Various, copperplate and form, London

External links

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