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Calligraphy (from Greek kallos "beauty" + graphẽ "writing") is a type of visual art. It is often called the art of writing (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 materials 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 supersede 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, improvised 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).

Western calligraphy

Modern Western calligraphy by Denis Brown

Historical development

Western calligraphy is recognizable by the use of the Roman alphabet, which evolved from the Phoenician, Greek, and Etruscan alphabets. The first Roman 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 was found more suitable for copying the Bible and other religious texts. It was the monasteries which preserved the calligraphic traditions during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the Roman Empire fell and Europe entered the Dark Ages.

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 scriptmarker, Visigothic script, Beneventan script), which are mostly cursive and hardly readable.

The rising Carolingian Empire encouraged setting a new standardized script, which was developed by several famous monasteries (including Corbie Abbeymarker and Beauvaismarker) 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. The Gothic calligraphy styles became dominant in northern Europe; and in 1454 AD, when Johannes Gutenberg developed the first printing press in Mainz, Germany, he adopted the Gothic style, making it the first typeface.

In the sixteenth century, the rediscovery of old Carolingian texts encouraged the creation of the Antiqua script (about 1470). The seventeenth century saw the Batarde script from France, and the eighteenth century saw the English script spread across Europe and world by their books.

The contemporary typefaces found on every computer, from simple word processing programs like Microsoft Word or Apple Pages to professional designer's 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).

Features of Western calligraphy

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.

Slavonic lettering

The history of the slavonic and consequently Russianmarker writing systems differs fundamentally from the one of the Latin language.

Glagolitic script (10–11 centuries)

Alphabets that became a basis for slavonic writing were called "Glagolitic" and "Cyrillic" alphabets. The history of their emergence is totally unknown. The extant monuments of glagolitsa are dated no later than the end of the 10th century. Symbols as a rule are composed of two elements that are combined one above the other.
Glagolitic script
Such construction can be seen in the decoration of kirillitsa. It usually does not include simple forms. They are connected with straights. Some letters (ш, у, м, ч, э) correspond to their modern form. Regarding the form of letters there are two types of glagolitsa. The first one – Bulgarianmarker glagolitsa – has roundish letters, and Croatian glagolitsa – called as well illyrian or dalmatian – has an angular forms of letters. Neither of the two types has strict border zones of spreading. Later glagolitsa borrowed many sounds from kirillitsa. West slavic glagolitsa existed for only a short time and was replaced with the Latin writing. But glagolitsa did not perish in modern times. It was used up to the beginning of World War II, and was even used for newspapers. It is currently being used in Croatian settlements of Italy.

Cyrillic alphabet – uncial (11 century)

Its origin remains unexplained. The title appeared later than the alphabet. Kirill, while travelling across slavic countries during the 9th century definitely composed a new slavonic alphabet. It is not known whether it was a glagolitic script or not. It was necessary to translate religious texts into the slavonic language. To do that it would be necessary to simplify intricate and difficult-to-write symbols of glagolitsa, but at the same time introduce the lacking letters for sound denotations in the spoken slavonic language.

Many sources of the time describe this, but mention only one slavonic alphabet though there were already two. The Cyrillic alphabet has 43 letters, 24 of them were borrowed from the Byzantium paternal writing and the other 19 were invented anew, but in the graphic decorations similar to the first ones. But not all the borrowed letters kept the denotations of the same sound in the Greek language – some received new denotations peculiar to their slavonic phonetic features.

Bulgarians have preserved the Cyrillic alphabet to a greater extent than other slavonians. Nowadays their writing (i.e. the Serbian language) is similar to Russian writing except several symbols designating specific phonetic features. The ancient form of kirillitsa is called "uncial". Uncial and glagolitic alphabet are wholly handwritten scripts. Uncial, as well as glagolitic alphabet, has a peculiar trait – clearness and straightness of tracings (writings).

Most letters are angular and have graceless features. Exceptions are narrow roundish letters with round curves – (О, С, Э, Р and others), and among other letters these seem out of place. Lower elongations of certain letters (Р, У, 3) are idiosyncratic to this type of writing. They appear to be light decorative elements in the context of calligraphy. As for the diacritical symbols, their origin is still unclear. Uncial letters are all of a big size and are set separately from each other. The old uncial has no intervals between words.

Semi-uncial (14 century)

Semi-uncial was the second type of writing, that had been developed from the 14th century and later replaced the uncial. This script is brighter and more roundish. Its letters are more shallow: they have many superscript marks and the whole system of punctuation marks. Letters are more flexible and wide in comparison with the uncial writing and have lower and upper elongations. The broad-pen technique used while writing the uncial is seldom applied in the semi-uncial. Semi-uncial was used with cursive and ligature in the 14th–18th centuries along with the other writing styles.

To use semi-uncial in writing was more comfortable. Feudal atomism caused the development of unique uncial styles and even an uncial language in some remote districts. Military novels and chronicles occupy the bulk of these manuscripts, but some manuscripts recount historical events in Russia during that period. During Ivan III's reign when the land integration and consolidation around Moscow was finished, Moscow became not only a national, but also a cultural center; and the national Russian state was created under a new autocratic regime. So a local Moscow culture became an icon of Russian character. Along with the growing demands of everyday life, the necessity of a new and more simple script was born in the society of Moscow, and thus Russia at large.

Сursive (15–17 centuries)

The term "cursive writing" corresponds to the Latin cursive. At the first stage of scripts development the ancient Greeks had a widely spread writing culture. Some of the south-west Slavonians also had their own scripts. Cursive writing as a separate type of writing emerged in the 15th century in Russia. The partly-bound letters and bright patterns differed from other scripts' letters. But since the letters had different marks and signs, pigtails, and additional symbols,it was difficult to read texts. Although cursive writing reflected semi-uncial, there were fine lines that bound letters, a feature that contrasts with the semi-uncial. This script is also more flexible and fluent. Letters of cursive writing were written with elongations.

In the beginning the symbols were composed of elongations as is specific to uncial and semi-uncial. In the second half of the 16th century, and especially in the beginning of the 17th century the semi-roundish lines became the major lines. In a broader historical perspective, it is possible to see some elements of the Greek cursive script.

By the second half of the 17th century, when many different variants of writing appeared, the cursive script showed more roundish elements and ligature. The roundish contour of letters became more decorative and smooth near the end of the century. Cursive writing of that time misses elements of the Greek cursive writing and discards some semi-uncial forms. Later straights and cursives attained balance and letters became more symmetrical and roundish. At that period the uncial was transformed into a civil writing cursive.

Eastern Asian calligraphy

Kǎishū (t)
Kǎishū (s)

Names and features

Traditional East Asian writing uses ink brushes to write Chinese characters. The way of writing (in Chinese, Shufa 書法, in Korean, Seoye 書藝, in Japanese Shodō ) is an important aspect of East Asian culture.

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.

Historical evolution of Eastern calligraphy

Ancient China
In ancient China, the oldest Chinese characters existing are Jiǎgǔwén characters carved on ox scapula and tortoise plastrons, because brush-written ones have decayed over time. 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 Jīnwén (Bronzeware script) and Dàzhuàn (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 Xiǎozhuàn characters. 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 Lìshū style (clerical script) which is more regularized, and in some ways similar to modern text, have been also authorised under Qin Shi Huangdi.

Kǎishū style (traditional regular script) — still in use today — and attribute to Wang Xizhi (王羲之, 303-361) and his followers, is even more regularized. Its spreading was encourage by Emperor Mingzong of Later Tang (926-933), who ordered the printing of the classic using new wooden block and such 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. But small changes have be made, for example in the shape of 广 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康熙字典 Kangxi Zidian, 1716. Scanned version available at See by example the radicals , or 广, p.41. The 2007 common shape for those characters does not clearly show the stroke order, but old versions, visible on the Kangxi Zidian p.41 clearly allow the stroke order to be determined..

Styles which did not survive include Bāfēnshū, a mix made of Xiaozhuan style at 80%, and Lishu at 20%.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 Xíngshū (semi-cursive or running script) and Cǎoshū (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 from Clerical script, in the same time as Regular script (Han dynasty), but Xíngshū and Cǎoshū were use for personal notes only, and were never used as standard. Caoshu style was highly appreadicate in Emperor Wu of Han reign (140-87).

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.

Indian calligraphy

On the subject of Indian calligraphy, writes:

Aśoka's edicts (c. 265–238 BC) were committed to stone. These inscriptions are stiff and angular in form. Following the Aśoka style of Indic writing, two new calligraphic types appear: Kharoṣṭī and Brāhmī. Kharoṣṭī 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.
Copper was 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. Many Indic manuscripts were written on palm leaves, even after the Indian languages were put on paper in the 13th century. 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.

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

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 Palacemarker, 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.

Persian calligraphy

Example showing 's proportional rules

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 500-600 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" (Khat-e-Mikhi). Centuries later, other scripts such as "Pahlavi" and "Avestaee" scripts became popular in ancient Persia.

After initiation of Islam in the 7th century, Persians adapted Arabic alphabet to Persian language and developed contemporary Persian alphabet. Arabic alphabet has 28 characters and Iranians added another four letters in it to arrive at existing 32 Persian letters.

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.

Islamic or Arabic calligraphy

Islamic or Arabic calligraphy (calligraphy in Arabic is Khatt ul-Yad خط اليد) is an aspect of Arabic art that has evolved alongside the religion of Islam and the Arabic language.

Arabic 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.

There was a strong parallel tradition to that of the Islamic, among Aramaic and Hebrew scholars, seen in such works as the Hebrew illuminated bibles of the 9th and 10th centuries.

Maya calligraphy

Maya calligraphy was expressed via Maya hieroglyphs; modern Mayan calligraphy is mainly used on seals and monuments in the Yucatán Peninsulamarker in Mexico. Maya hieroglyphs are rarely used in government offices, however in Campechemarker, Yucatánmarker and Quintana Roomarker, Mayan calligraphy is written in Latin letters. Some commercial companies in Southern Mexico use Maya hieroglyphs as symbols of their business. Some community associations and modern Maya brotherhoods use Maya hieroglyphs as symbols of their groups.

Most of the archaeological sites in Mexico such as Chichen Itzamarker, Labna, Uxmalmarker, Edznamarker, Calakmulmarker, etc. have glyphs in their structures. Stone carved monuments also known as stele are a common source of ancient Maya calligraphy.


The principal tools for a calligrapher are the pen, which may be flat- 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.

See also



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 Française. 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.
  • Zapf, H. (2007) Alphabet Stories: A Chronicle of technical develoments, 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

Modern Iranian calligraphy

Chinese (brush) calligraphy

Western Calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Calligraphy of other scripts

Japanese calligraphy

Calligraphy museums

World calligraphy associations

International Competitions

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