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Art Through Time: A Global View

Writing Compare: Why Do We Decorate Sacred Text?

Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r

Prato Haggadah, Folio 11r
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Spain
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1300
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Ink, gesso, paint, and gold leaf on parchment
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 8 ¼ in. (21 cm.), W: 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm.)
Location: The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Leaf from a Qur’an Manuscript

Leaf from a Qur’an Manuscript
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, attr. to Spain
Region: Europe
Date: 13th–14th century
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Ink, colors, and gold on vellum
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Dimensions: H: 21 1/16 in. (53.5 cm.), W: 22 in. (55.9 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund

Why do we decorate sacred text?

Throughout history, art and writing have had a special relationship to religion. Many of the world’s major religions have used art to honor the divine or to pass on the teachings of the faith. When the sacred texts of a religion are decorated, both of these goals are achieved at once.

Questions to Consider

  • The embellishment of the sacred word is important in many religions, particularly in Judaism and Islam, where figurative arts have traditionally been prohibited. Why do you think that the decoration of words might be acceptable when figurative imagery is not?
  • In the Hebrew manuscript page, decorative elements are confined largely to the margins, whereas the Qur’an page makes the letters themselves the primary decorative elements. How do these different approaches impact the legibility of the words? Do you think is legibility important here? Why or why not?
  • Both of these pages represent text from books of recognized religious value. If a given text is already considered sacred, what is the significance of ornamenting it?

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Art Through Time: A Global View

Credits

Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2