Hebrew manuscript highlights - micrography

In the previous instalment of our series of posts on the Bodleian's Hebrew manuscripts, we featured two beautiful 13th-century mahzors and a selection of manuscripts containing astronomical and mathematical diagrams. Today, we're focusing on one of the most distinctive and eye-catching aspects of the Hebrew manuscript tradition: micrography.


Micrography is the use of tiny script to create shapes and designs. In the Hebrew scribal tradition, micrography is most strongly associated with the masorah, a notation system used by scribes to ensure that the text of a Hebrew Bible had been copied out correctly. The masorah is generally found in the margins of Hebrew Bibles. Over the course of the Middle Ages, strictly functional masoretic notation gave way to elaborate patterns of interlocking shapes and to entire pages of micrography to mark the beginning or end of a manuscript or manuscript section, somewhat like the carpet pages in Insular gospel books. According to this post on micrography by the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary—which accompanies an online exhibit of stunning micrography—a separate scribe called a masran was responsible for adding the masorah to a book, although occasionally this task was done by the same scribe who produced the main text. (The JTS post also cites a complaint from the 12th-century rabbi Judah he-Hasid, who argued that the ornateness of masoretic micrography made the text itself unreadable. Some of the micrography in the Bodleian's collection suggests that he may have had a point.)


We are excited to be digitizing so many examples of micrography, because it is an art form that particularly benefits from deep zoom. Viewed with the naked eye, micrographic shapes can look like mere line drawings; it's only on zooming in that one can see the tiny letters that make up each line. Here are a few notable examples of micrography from the Bodleian's collection:


MS. Canonici Or. 42

This Pentateuch, produced in Portugal in 1470, is part of the Bodleian's Canonici collection. It features full pages of micrography as well as marginal masorah:


MS. Canonci Or. 42 fol. 72r
MS. Canonici Or. 42, fol. 72r

MS. Canon. Or. 42 fol. 72r detail
MS. Canonici Or. 42, fol. 72r (detail)

MS. Canonici Or. 42 fol. 178r
MS. Canonici Or. 42, fol. 178r

MS. Canonici Or. 42 fol. 293r
MS. Canonici Or. 42, fol. 293r


MS. Pococke 135

This 13th-century Kitāb Kifāyah al-`Ābidīn​ contains examples of micrography on the flyleaves, including the lines of text that make up the backs of these birds:


MS. Pococke 135 fol. 1v
MS. Pococke 135, fol. 1v


MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 97a

This is another Pentateuch, produced in Yemen in 1478. The very dark ink and orangish paper are typical of many Yemenite Hebrew manuscripts. There are several pages of micrography prefacing this manuscript, as well as zigzagging micrography in the margins of the main text.


MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 97a fol. 2r
MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 97a, fol. 2r

MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 97a fol. 44v
MS. Oppenheim 4° 97a, fol. 44v


MS. Canonici Or. 94

This is another exceptionally beautiful Canonici Bible, produced in the 14th century in Italy. Here, the marginal micrography has been further decorated with painted ornaments:


MS. Canonici Or. 94 fol. 24r
MS. Canonici Or. 94, fol. 24r


MS. Kennicott 2

In this exceptional manuscript, another 14th-century Pentateuch, the scribe has incorporated political statements into the micrographic decoration—here, the symbols of the kingdoms of Castile and Leon.


MS. Kennicott 2 fol. 76v
MS. Kennicott 2, fol. 76v


Other examples

For those who want to explore further, here is an incomplete list of the Bodleian's digitized Hebrew manuscripts that contain micrography:


MS. Bodley Or. 614

MS. Bodley Or. 804

MS. Canonici Or. 34

MS. Canonici Or. 37

MS. Canonici Or. 42

MS. Canonici Or. 91

MS. Canonici Or. 94

MS. Kennicott 2

MS. Kennicott 4

MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 97a

MS. Pococke 135


and two from the Vatican Library: