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Scripts in Development

Hannah Korn, Collections Management Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2012

«The range of manuscripts included in Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition suggests the importance of book production in the cultures found throughout the exhibition. Paleography (the study of handwriting) provides insight into the development of script and writing during this time.»

Folio from a Hijazi Qur'an

Folio from a Hijazi Qur'an (recto). Ink on parchment, 8th century. The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London (KFQ 60)

The earliest known Qur'ans (Hijazi Qur'ans dating to around 650–700 A.D.)1 were written in an informal, sloping Arabic script, as seen in the example above. Kufic script, however, which is characterized by angularity and was also frequently chosen for architectural decoration, became the standard script used in Qur'anic production between the mid-eighth and the beginning of the tenth century.2 A common feature in Kufic Qur'ans is the practice of mashq, in which individual letters are horizontally elongated. The result is an aesthetic rhythm and harmony, but it compromises the legibility of the text. These manuscripts were most likely used as guides by reciters who had already memorized the Qur'an.

Folio from a Qur'an

Folio from a Qur'an, ca. 900-950. Probabaly made in Tunisia, Qairawan. Gold leaf, silver, and ink on parchment colored with indigo. Brooklyn Museum, New York, Gift of Beatrice Riese (1995.51a–b)

The Blue Qur'an, which is noted for its use of luxurious materials, displays the horizontal format and elongated letters typical of Kufic Qur'ans, and is one of many to use chrysography (writing in gold). The indigo-dyed parchment, however, is unique. The Blue Qur'an may have been influenced by a style of Byzantine manuscript that employed a similar color scheme of gold or silver text on purple parchment.3 One such example is the Codex Sinopensis, which is also included in the exhibition.

Codex Sinopensis

Codex Sinopensis, 550–600. Made in Syria, Byzantine Palestine, Constantinople (?). Gold ink on parchment; 1 bifolium. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (suppl. grec 1286), folios 13, 16

Like the Blue Qur'an, the Codex Sinopensis was written in a script that was standard for the context in which it was produced; in this case, uncial. Developed in the second century, uncial script was used in most books—Greek and Latin alike—between the fifth and ninth centuries.4 Uncial letters are majuscule (all of equal height), curvilinear, and unjoined. Dating to the sixth century, the Codex Sinopensis displays many of the characteristics associated with early uncial manuscripts: it is written in large, equally spaced letters that are not separated into words by spaces or accents.

Sacra Parallela

Sacra Parallela, folios 207v–208r, 9th century. Black, red, and brown ink on parchment; 394 folios. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (Grec 923)

The Sacra Parallela, shown above, also uses uncial script, but in this case, the letters slope to the right, and accents have been introduced. Scholars of paleography have been able to date this manuscript to the ninth century based on its use of this variant of uncial.5

Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, mid-10th century. Sinai, Egypt. Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment; 254 folios. The Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt (Greek Ms 417)

In the ninth century, a new script, known as "minuscule," began to be used in Byzantine manuscripts. A highly stylized version of minuscule (known as Kirchenlehrerstil or minuscule bouletée) can be seen in The Ladder of Divine Ascent from the mid-tenth century. Minuscule proved more practical than uncial, as it was more compact, easier to write, and often more legible.6 While it displaced uncial as the standard script used in manuscripts, uncial's capital letters did not disappear completely. In fact, the combination of minuscule and capitals is the origin of the modern Greek letter case.


[1] Finbarr B. Flood. "The Qur'an," Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th–9th Centuries, Ed. Helen C. Evans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 266.

[2] "Calligraphy." The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture. Ed. Jonathan M. Bloom, Sheila S. Blair.

[3] Oxford Islamic Studies Online. 18-Apr-2012. http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t276/e203.

[4] Linda Komaroff. "Two Folios from a Qur'an," Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 275–276

[5] Wolfram Hörandner. "Uncial," The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed. Alexander P. Kazhdan. © 1991, 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 18 April 2012 http://www.oxford-byzantium.com/entry?entry=t174.e5655

[6] Joanni Mercatio Cardinal. Greek Uncial Fragments in the Library of Congress in Washington, Traditio 5 (1947), p. 42

[7] Ernst Gamillscheg and Ihor Ševčenko. "Minuscule," The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed. Alexander Kazhdan. © P. 1991, 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 18 April 2012 http://www.oxford-byzantium.com/entry?entry=t174.e3565

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About the Author

Hannah Korn is a collections management assistant in the Department of Drawings and Prints.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.