April 14th, 2016
The types of pens and calligraphy used in religious text is a complex, multilayered question that spans centuries as well as nations. The calligraphic methods of a medieval European illuminated manuscript are, by necessity, quite different from a Japanese sutra produced at the same time. The tools and materials have evolved over time, though in many cases, the choices were a matter of practicality, what was available at hand, rather than what made the most appealing manuscripts. Still, as any artist will tell you, making do with the materials at hand and making it look good is a major part of art.
The pens of calligraphy will vary depending on the exact era and region in which they’re used. European calligraphy, upon which most of the earliest European religious texts were based on, used reed pens through out the period of Antiquity. In Late Antiquity they were replaced by quill pens, the writing instruments made of feathers familiar to most people who have seen enough movies. These quill pens and their firm yet flexible base was specially cut in order to hold and disgorge ink when manipulated in the right way. The earliest European texts created in this way were the illuminated manuscripts that included elaborate text and visual art to make the books useful even to the large numbers of people of the Middle Ages who could not read. The manuscripts were written on a variety of materials, such as animal hide based parchment and vellum It was only around the time of the development of the printing press that paper again became widely available in Europe.
Indian calligraphy was quite different. Though developed at roughly the same time, the differences in languages and available materials made calligraphy a very different art form. The earliest Indic calligraphy were written on copper and the bark of the Indian Birch tree at first, but palm leaves quickly replaced copper as a cheaper and in many ways superior writing material. Strips of palm leaves were cut into rectangles and had holes drilled into them before being bound with string. As it turns out, the palm leaf was a quite impressive surface for writing, enabling delicate lettering. In India, religious texts were also illuminated manuscripts; indeed, the Sikh faith in particular considered a hand written illuminated manuscript an essential item. Many monastic Buddhist communities also trained members in calligraphy. Finally, the Hindu illuminated manuscripts and their stirring images of the faith’s deities stir the imagination of millions to this day.
Islamic calligraphy was likewise used in sacred texts, but evolved into the primary art form of the Islamic world. As figurative images are seen as suspect in Islam, very few Islamic calligraphic works are illuminated manuscripts. However, the low opinion of pictures and statues only encouraged Islamic artists to adopt calligraphy as the primary art form of the Islamic world. It’s a tradition that has in many ways persisted to this day. The pen of Islamic calligraphy is usually written with the qalam, a pen generally made of bamboo or dried reed, combined with colorful inks (similar to the gel pen) that can vary in intensity depending on the calligrapher’s technique. Passages from the Qu’ran are a popular subject of these artistic works.
Japanese calligraphy also found a great deal of influence in Buddhist religious practices, and some of the oldest Japanese texts are Buddhist sutras, texts describing the precepts of the faith. The tools of Japanese calligraphy evolved to fit the needs of the island as well, and include a brush, an inkstick, mulberry paper and inkstone to grind the inkstick against, then mixed with water to produce the ink.
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