Qantara Qantara

The Arts of the Book

In Byzantium

Although certain Christians distrusted classical culture, many of them, including several Fathers of the Church, appropriated the Greek paideia without attempting to create their own distinctive education system. Christian authors used philosophy and rhetoric, finding in them sources of inspiration.

At the same time, the triumph of the Christian religion encouraged the creation of new literary genres, such as theology, hagiography and homiletics[1] – copied time and time again in codices –Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, who were trained in rhetoric and philosophy, distinguished themselves in genres such as poetry, exegesis, theological and spiritual treatises, and sacred eloquence. In the face of secular history, Christians developed their own historiographical tradition thanks, first and foremost, to Eusebius of Caesarea and his work, Historia ecclesiasticaEcclesiastical History) (, as well as to several historians of the Church, such as Sozomen and Theodoret of Cyrrhus. In the sixth century, Cosmas Indicopleustes proposed a specifically Christian geography with his Topografia Christiana (Christian Topography). genres that played a key role in Christian worship. In the fourth century, the three Cappadocian Fathers of the Church, Basil of Caesarea,

The need to pass on classical texts and the new literary forms that emerged with the victory of Christianity considerably increased the number of copies in codices, especially from the fourth century when parchment became widely used, supplanting papyrus. The interest in the publication of both classical and theological texts thus encouraged book production, which peaked during the Middle Byzantine period. The form of the book, made up of several quires of parchment bound together, enabled different texts to be published together; and also protected them from wear and tear better than the roll form used previously. The form of the codex evolved over the centuries: improvements were made to its structure and the mise-en-page of its content.

Once the animal skin was cleaned, dried and folded to form the leaves, it was ready for the text. Lines drawn on the parchment with dry point (ruling) before the leaves of parchment were assembled in quires were used to guide the reed. These marks pricked out on the parchment vertical lines, which set the margins of the book, and horizontal lines, which guided the hand in writing.

Both the copying of the text and the execution of the illustrations required perfect collaboration between the copyist and the illuminator. The scribe began by carefully marking out the space reserved for the miniaturist. He wrote his text in one or two columns. However, a few rare examples have survived in which the text was divided among three or even four columns (Codex Vaticanus[2] Codex Sinaiticus[3]). The copyist’s tools included – besides the ink and the inkpot – sharpened scissors and knives for cutting the nibs of reeds and quills, and cutting the parchment, as well as pumice stones for scraping off “dry” errors. The text was copied using brown or black ink while important passages, initials, chapter titles and liturgical indications were written in red ink. In rare cases, particularly for liturgical manuscripts, the scribe used different coloured inks in order to distinguish better between the passages of text (Paris, BnF Ms. gr. 54). Gold and silver ink, reserved for major initials and the beginning of a text, were also used on rare occasions to copy out the entire text (the Rossano Gospel[4] and the Sinope Gospel[5]). and

Once the surface allocated to the text was defined, a fairly wide space on the side was left blank for either commentaries on the main text – scholia – or illustrations. The other advantage of the margin was that it made possible later interventions by the copyist and/or by a corrector, or by the illuminator. The margins were sometimes filled long after the manuscript had been executed – with annotations, corrections, pen strokes, sketches and additional illustrations.

The illustrations, far from being reserved for the margins, occupied a large part of the codex. Full-page illustrations were often used for the frontispiece of a book or chapter. Illustrations were also executed in the margins of each folio or incorporated into the text as friezes or tables. The miniatures thus provided a visual interpretation of the text, facilitating its comprehension.

The treatment of images reflected the iconographic and stylistic trends of each period, which were also evident in monumental art and icons. Very few of the surviving Byzantine manuscripts are richly decorated with miniatures. The large number of miniaturists that had to be mobilised for long periods of time to execute these illustrations meant that costs were sufficiently high to discourage the various scriptoria of the empire from devoting themselves to the art of manuscript illumination.

The widespread use of paper from the fourteenth century as well as that of type brought about changes in the form of the Byzantine book without really changing its basic structure.



In Islam

The art of the book concerns all the stages involved in book-making: Seen from the outside a codex is essentially a group of folios sewn together, covered by a binding that often has a flap. The leaves of the book, the support for writing, used to be made of parchment before they were gradually replaced by paper. And on this support, the copyist executed his work that was often followed by the intervention of an ornamental craftsman. Naturally, according to the place and the period, the books that were copied from region to region of the Mediterranean varied significantly.

The book or codex is a marvellous tool for transmitting knowledge and is in itself an object that merits our study. Codices have grown out of a discipline that covers the simple copying of recipes to the richly decorated copies of the Koran. It is important to remember that a large number of the manuscripts that have come to us from before the “modern” era, an era that saw the gradual dissemination of the printed word—scientific, religious or poetic—are the result of expert craftsmanship and, above all, a combined effort involving the talents of bookbinders, calligraphers and illuminators.

We will not retrace the history of that great symbol of ancient Mediterranean knowledge: the Library of Alexandria. After its destruction, the date of which is still uncertain (probably anterior to the 4th century), we can presume that much of the ancient knowledge transcribed on rolls of papyrus or parchment disappeared in the ashes. A few hundred years later, however, in the Baghdad of Hârûn al-Rashîd and his successors (the Abbasid caliphs), the “House of Wisdom” (Dâr al-hikma, 9th century) took over the library’s function of compiling and transmitting knowledge; but at this stage, paper had become the main support for transcribing knowledge, its leaves sewn in bound folios, forming what we know term “books”.

In the Muslim tradition, the Book designates the Koran, just as the “People of the Book” includes the revelations of the three great monotheist religions. The status of the “book” in the Muslim religion—whether we are referring to the revealed Message or to its transcribed copy—thus confers a privileged status on this object of the “book”. And, hence, there is no doubt that this act of copying the Koran gave the Arab book a very definite and strong impetus.

While initially primarily composed of parchment covered with a binding of paste boards lined with leather, the Arab book flourished with the development and fabrication of paper. Paper making reached Baghdad at the turn of the eighth century. The oldest testimonies to such Arab documents on paper go back to the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth century and were discovered in Spain.

To begin with, manuscripts on parchment adopted a vertical format and then, for the most part, a horizontal format (Italian style); when paper was introduced, however, books progressively returned to the vertical format. Elsewhere, substituting paper for parchment or other supports (like papyrus) happened gradually from East to West; and while Iraq began manufacturing paper from the end of the eighth century, it was not until the tenth that paper “arrived” in Sicily and not before the twelfth that it was introduced in the Iberian peninsular, in Xátiva (Valencia). In this process of replacing parchment with paper, there was a quasi systematic reticence when it came to copying the Koran.

The quality of the support was clearly very important for the evolution and realisation of the book; whether parchment or paper, the support had to be prepared beforehand by the copyist to receive the ink and to ensure that the quill (or reed pen) could move smoothly over the support. Such preparation involved applying a whole series of finishes, sometimes accompanied by tinctures, which were applied before the copying could begin.

The support then needed to be traced with lines by a process that varied according to the support (paper or parchment) to ensure the text was well aligned or “justified”. Along with this operation of ruling (mistara), the margins also had to be defined, as well as the areas to be reserved for embellishments.

And hence the copying could begin, making use of a whole panoply of inks prepared following a number of different formulae; nut-galls for the tannin, wood smoke for the pigment, an iron salt to precipitate the tannin to black and Arabic gum to bind them together. Coloured inks were also made for, most notably, underlining passages, writing up commentaries or for executing decorative motifs. To the range of colours made form mineral and vegetal materials, we must add the metallic inks, in particular gold ink: An expert use of such ink on parchment tinted with indigo is the famous “Blue Koran” (Museum of the Arab World Institute (l’Institut du monde arabe), inv. AI 84 09, in Paris).

The text has been copied using a reed pen (qalam), fabricated from a very particular type of reed (the most sought-after reeds in the Arab world came from Lower Mesopotamia) with a nib cut at an  angle. The different types of writing varied according the style of a region and to the time period.

Once the copying phase was finished, an illumination could be added in accordance to the demands of the commissioner. Illuminations most commonly appeared on the frontispiece and for each chapter heading. The illustration of the written text varied a great deal according to the epoch and the different regions in the Islamic world. And likewise, although the Muslim East presents a large selection of illustrated books—from scientific treaties and poetic works to courtly novels or imaginary stories—illustrated books are rare in the Maghreb and Muslim Spain.

When the work on the pages was finished, the sheets were folded and sewn together as a folio; the number of double sheets per folio could vary according to the different styles of book-making, which again depended on the place and time period. Along the spine, the folios were stitched together, with a braided headband at the top; next came the cover, often made of leather-lined paste board. The bookbinding techniques employed in Muslim Spain had a long-lasting tradition and influenced future productions both on the Iberian peninsular and in neighbouring countries (mudejar binding).

The Mediterranean basin offers a great variety of original pieces that testify to this art of the book; some regions, following the example of Muslim Spain, lived through periods of internal intolerance as during Averroes’s epoch (1126-1198), the most sombre being the years of the Inquisition. Such times, it goes without saying, were devastating for books, which time and time again were burned to ashes.

Thankfully some books were preserved, safely housed in remote libraries or carefully hidden away and kept safe by scholars on both shores of the Mediterranean. Luckily so, for today a great number of these volumes are in preservation, allowing us to study them in the present.

The first books printed in the Arabic alphabet were the work of Europeans, which appeared as early sixteenth century; it was only much later (especially in the nineteenth), after having crossed the barriers both of taste and tradition, that Muslim countries adopted the printing press. In this domain, the ductility of the Arabic alphabet could be successfully rendered thanks to the techniques of lithograph printing and the result met with the accord of a much larger public.

Y. P.



[1] Form of rhetoric applied to preaching and sermons.

[2] Rome, Vatican Library, Ms. Gr. 1209.

[3] London, British Library, Ms. Add. 43725.

[4] Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, Rossano Cathedral, Italy (sixth century).

[5] Codex Sinopensis, Paris, BnF, Ms. gr. 1286 (sixth century).