You might have heard about calligraphy before, but really what is calligraphy? The term has evolved from the Greek words for ‘beautiful’ and ‘to write.’ However, as you might imagine, the meaning of this word has developed and shifted over time.

A form of artistic expression, calligraphists, aims to render beautiful letters and convey rhythm and meaning to the reader. An elegant and aesthetic art form, the calligraphy skill involves understanding different elements when forming letters, such as touch pressure and hand movement.

So, what is the difference between calligraphy and cursive handwriting? The most common misconception made about calligraphy is its confusion with cursive handwriting. However, unlike good old cursive handwriting styles, calligraphy is about so much more than lettering. Calligraphic letters and pages are often dressed up with some form of decoration. This could include elegant colors such as gold, ornate pattern, pictures, and other historic flourishes. Additionally, there is a big difference between a beautiful lettering formation and the beautiful additional decorations and ornamentations on top of a form. Calligraphy is all about the decorations, conveying meaning to the reader through the words and their display.

What tools do calligraphists use?

There are special calligraphy pens with flat, round, or pointed nibs and calligraphy brushes with stiffer or softer bristles, depending on the calligraphy work and style.

However, calligraphists can also use standard pens like felt-tip or ballpoint pens. Again, this depends on the type and style of calligraphy being practiced. Individual calligraphists will have their preferred tools, and a wide range of tools have been used in different forms of calligraphy around the world. Many of these forms involve various resources, such as paper and ink, so it makes sense that multiple tools would also be used when producing calligraphy.

Some common calligraphy tools include:

  • The quill
  • The dip pen
  • The ink brush
  • The Qalam
  • The fountain pen
  • The chiseled marker

What is the history of calligraphy?

As mentioned above, ‘calligraphy’ is derived from the Greek words ‘kallos’ (which means beauty) and ‘graphein’ (which means to write). However, calligraphy isn’t only associated with Greece. Many countries and cultures worldwide have their district traditions of calligraphy.

In China, calligraphy is known by the termsshūfǎorfǎshū(書法or法書in Traditional Chinese, which translates literally to “the method or law of writing”). The oldest Chinese characters are known as oracle bone script(甲骨文) and were carved onto the body parts of the ox and tortoise. The emperor Qin Shi Huang was the first person to conquer the whole of the Chinese basin, and around 220 BCE, he announced a major change to the writing system. As a result, a set of3300 standardizedXiǎozhuàn (小篆)characters were created, and later eras of Chinese history also saw their particular alphabets and styles of calligraphy.

Ancient Egypt famously used a system of hieroglyphs for communication. This system differs from other written languages in that it contains many symbols communicating information visually, with images of animals and tools mixed in with the conventional written script. As the visual elements of this system of writing were crucial to conveying its meaning, skilled calligraphers were required to trace out the characters of this system precisely.

In medieval Europe, the fact that the printing press hadn’t yet been invented meant that producing books was a slow process that had to be completed by hand by skilled calligraphers. As a result, medieval scripts in these manuscripts were often highly decorative and beautifully illustrated, meant to provide an appealing visual counterpart to the text and communicate the information involved.

In the context of the UK, the famous Lindisfarne Gospels were produced between 715 and 720 in the monastery at Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of Northumberland in North-East England. In keeping with the broader medieval European focus on decoration and visual splendor in written texts, the Gospels are richly and colorfully decorated, with fine calligraphy and illustrations. The text was originally encased in a fine leather treasure binding decorated with jewels and metals, reflecting the craftsmanship and richness of its production. Unfortunately, the original jeweled cover was ultimately lost in Viking raids on the island.

Image: An example of Islamic calligraphy

What’s the use of teaching my students about calligraphy?

Given that calligraphy is a more complex and decorative form of writing than the more conventional cursive writing, it can initially seem hard to fathom why it might be studied in the classroom. Won’t this confuse my students?

However, helping your children to develop a basic understanding of calligraphy is helpful on multiple levels. For younger children, practicing calligraphy can help them develop their skills in using stationary and completing structured tasks in class. In addition, tracing out the elaborate patterns of some forms of calligraphy offers an engaging way for the children to build a similar skillset to the one that will be used in more conventional writing.

Calligraphy also offers a window into history. Some of the many different styles of calligraphy that have existed in different cultures and historical eras have been covered here. A more creative teacher can use this information to dive deeper into some of these practices. For example, why were medieval European manuscripts so richly decorated? A question like this could be used to launch into a discussion regarding the role of religion in some medieval European states and where artisan classes such as calligraphers fell into the pecking order of society.

Where is calligraphy used today?

Calligraphy has many applications and is great for arts and crafts in the classroom! The use of beautiful and detailed writing is virtually universal in human societies and can assume a variety of potential forms. You could discuss with your class what the benefits of calligraphy might be in each of these cases and consider how it might have changed over time:

  • Wedding or event invitations
  • Logo design and advertising
  • Art
  • Graphic design
  • Inscriptions
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