The Gift of the Word

The Perfection of the Word

A Qur'an purchased today in a bookstore might be printed in a typeface much like the Naskh script of the fourteenth-century Qur'an manuscript in this exhibit.  Called the most "human" of Qur'anic scripts, Naskh became a standard, and eventually the model for a modern font, because it was cursive script well-suited to fluid hand movement and rapid, accurate calligraphy.

Originally there were many styles of script used by Qur'an copyists, reflecting regional and period tastes.  Kufic, one of the most majestic and expressive of the earliest styles, can be seen on the tenth-century Qur'an manuscript displayed here.

The Kufic script is angular, with elongated, horizontal letter shapes and short, broad strokes of the pen, as if carved in stone.  The Naskh version of some of the same verses of the Qur'an is written on a horizontal baseline like the Kufic, but is more rhythmic, delicate and curvilinear within the carefully proportioned text blocks.

Although Naskh supplanted Kufic as the preferred script for writing the Qur'an, calligraphers were very aware of the aesthetic and spiritual value of the ancient, liturgical Kufic style.  Adding Kufic to a page created a visual link to traditional spiritual values, even if limited to illuminations or headings, as it appears in a condensed and highly ornamental form at the bottom of the fourteenth-century Qur'an leaf.

Calligraphers, seeking spiritual perfection, employed their considerable artistic skills to make each copy a splendid and complete revelation of the Qur'anic message, using varied script styles and intricate, imaginative illuminations in balanced and graphically interesting page designs.  Every manuscript in this exhibit, each from the hand of a dedicated calligrapher, has an equally engaging tale to tell.

Jeffrey Brown, Normandie Holmes, and Christy Valentine, Art History Seminar, Portland State University

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