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Micrography in the Jewish Tradition

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(The following is a post by Sharon Horowitz, reference librarian in the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Micrography is minute script written into abstract patterns or formed into figurative designs such as the shape of animals, flowers or human figures. This is a Jewish form of embellishment of Biblical texts, developed in the late 9th century, and first used by Jewish scribes in the Holy Land and in Egypt. The earliest dated example of micrography is the Ben Asher Codex of the Prophets (dated 895-6 CE, Cairo).

Originally, this tiny script was used as marginal notations in Bible manuscripts and it conveyed the masorah, the traditional way of writing and/or reading the Biblical text. The information included counting and listing each word in the Hebrew Bible, how many times it was used, and where else in the Bible it appeared in exactly the same grammatical form. The purpose of this information was to preserve and stabilize the accuracy of the sacred text. In the earliest Bible codices, the decoration was usually geometric and abstract, in deference to the iconoclastic nature of the local Islamic art.  Later, it was also frequently transformed into animals and flowers.

These Jewish ritual scribes were already adept at writing in tiny script. Part of their craft included writing biblical verses in small script for mezuzot (small doorpost scrolls) and as inserts for Tefillin (phylacteries; a small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law). When the standard form of holy books changed from the scroll to the codex, the scribe gained freedom to introduce vowel points, cantillation marks, and masoretic notes* into the margins. He also gained the freedom to decorate the Bible in the style of the period. Transforming the marginal notes into designs was an outlet for scribal creative talents. This scribal innovation eventually became a tradition.

According to Professor Laila Avrin (1935-1999), an expert on micrography, this Jewish art form spread to Yemen and then to Europe, where it reached the height of its popularity between the 13th and 15th centuries, and retained a unique style. Using one’s alphabet for decorative purposes and the belief in the holiness of the written word are not unique to the Jews. In Jewish micrography, however, one unique feature is that the minute text usually draws the outline of the subject.

Whereas the first use of micrography was only for the pleasure of Bible readers and scholars, since it was a decorative way of conveying the masorah, in later centuries micrography also became a technique for enhancing the beauty of Bible and prayer book manuscripts and appealed to a broader audience. With the invention of printing in the mid-15th century, fewer manuscript Bibles were produced. Metal typeface could not replicate the micrographic detail that the pen could make. Jewish scribes then found new subjects and creative applications for this ancient art form. They realized the potential of the lithographic press for making inexpensive reproductions of their micrographic designs. These designs included ornamented marriage contracts, various Biblical texts, Biblical scenes, holy sites in Jerusalem, and portraits of royalty, famous Rabbis, and Jewish authors. The lettering in these more modern micrographic prints is highly skilled, clear, and legible. Readers pore over the page to figure out what text has been used to create the image, where the text begins, and (since the text is usually known) if any words are missing.

Shown here are two examples of micrography from the collections of the Hebraic Section. From a distance this first image appears to be a galleon ship. On closer inspection one might notice that the images are made out the text of the Biblical Book of Jonah. The prophet Jonah, in the lower front, appears to be walking the gang plank into the sea. A rather small fish is waiting for him. This lithograph of a micrography was completed in 1897 by Moses Elijah Goldstein, of Frankfurt am Main.

Book of Jonah, the lithograph of a micrography completed in 1897 by Moses Elijah Goldstein, of Frankfurt am Main.
Detail of the Book of Jonah, the lithograph of a micrography completed in 1897 by Moses Elijah Goldstein, of Frankfurt am Main.

The second example is a portrait of Jeremiah by Beryl Reiss, completed in 1837. The image is created using the words of the Biblical books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, and poems of Judah Halevi, “Songs of Zion.” The Jeremiah micrography was inspired by a painting by the German artist, Eduard Bendemann (1811-1889). The Hebraic Section has a post card with a reproduction of the painting. The juxtaposition makes for an interesting comparison. For example, the painter has Jeremiah bare headed, while the micrographer has given him a headdress—probably to make more room for words.

A portrait of Jeremiah by Beryl Reiss, completed in 1837. The image is created using the words of the Biblical books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, and poems of Judah Halevi, “Songs of Zion.”
A painting of Jeremiah by the German artist, Eduard Bendemann (1811-1889).


*Cantillation marks are like musical notations used to guide a reader in the ritual chanting of the Hebrew Bible, most often in public worship service; the Masorah is referenced above. These notes preserve the form of the Biblical text, they record variant spellings; variant vowel pointing, and other explanatory textual information.

An earlier version of this blog listed an incorrect date for “Book of Jonah,” the lithograph of a micrography completed by Moses Elijah Goldstein of Frankfurt am Main. Professor Jorden Penkower, of Bar Ilan University, has kindly called the author’s attention to an earlier version of the lithograph of this micrography. It is part of the collection at the Sir Isaac Wolfson Museum in Jerusalem. In that version the date written is 1891, and the name (possibly of the artist or of the printer) inscribed below the image is Jacob Soffer.

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