In his masterful BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, British Museum director Neil MacGregor guides his listerners through the famous collection. Beginning with the knapped flint knives of prehistoric humans, MacGregor progresses through time and space as he surveys the agricultural, artistic, literary, ritual, and technological developments of diverse cultures.
One segment struck me as especially pertinent for PTB. Here, MacGregor discusses a tughra, or the illuminated signature of Suleiman the Magnificent, the great Ottoman sultan of the 16th century. Per MacGregor, the tughra served a purpose not unlike the great seals or crests of today’s governments. A document which contained Suleiman’s tughra carried the greatest imprimatur of the Ottoman state. The tughra, then, represents a literal extension of imperial power.
The tughra MacGregor examines in this episode had been detached from its accompanying declaration in the intervening years. Interestingly, while the tughra is written in an extremely ornate, complicated, and difficult to forge Arabic, surviving documents contemporary to Suleiman’s reign suggest that the declaration itself was written in Turkish. As MacGregor notes, the sultan’s signature is in the language of God’s direct revelation to Muhammad, the Qur’an. Suleiman’s tughra not only legitimizes imperial action but also reflects the divine sanction of Suleiman as caliph.
Islam, unlike many movements and historical periods of western Christianity, has long fostered a strong aniconic tradition. The Muslim aversion to the depiction of human beings in art, and the Prophet in particular, has spurred the illumination of text as a significant artistic tradition. Illuminated texts decorate not only the Qur’an and other religious texts, but also mosques and nominally secular documents such as Suleiman’s tughra.
The Islamic illumination tradition exemplified by the Ottoman tughra offers a counterpoint to the more modern Christian notion that liturgical text serves primarily a didactic purpose and only secondarily an aesthetic purpose. The “interim” Missals of the immediate peri- and post-conciliar periods exhibit a gradual decline in the amount of illumination. Missals issued just after the Concilium’s first instruction often still contain a Canon page. In just a few years, some editions eliminated prints altogether. A Missel Romain (Tournai: Desclée, 1966?) I once examined contained absolutely no pictoral or textual illumination at all, just Times large point font throughout the liturgical book.
The notion that liturgy should be heard and not read hearkens to the very origins of Christianity. The reservation of literacy to an elite in the Levant and Mediterranean of the first century CE logically implies that most early Christians could only understand the Word and liturgy through the interpetation of a liturgical presider, a community leader, or other literate interpreter. The rise of literacy, as exemplified by Suleiman’s tughra, suggests that over time rising rates of literacy advanced the illumination of the written word as a further enrichment of spoken meaning. Christian iconography of the medieval period, for example, certainly did not shy away from human representation. Yet late medieval and renaissance painting often contain Latin phrases which are interwoven into pictoral depictions. Medieval and peri-modern Christianity, though arguably still more focused on painted or sculpted representation as an aesthetic end, certainly combined text and iconography in profound and novel methods.
In my view, the recent turn towards liturgical text with little or no textual illumination declines to recognize and even celebrate the long tradition of amplifying the Word of the “made flesh” through illumination. Illumination captures the ephemeral breath of voice in a durable form well suited for contemplation and intellectual wandering. A reintroduction of textual illumination admits a balance between the ideal of formative Christianity’s oral culture and the later refinement of literary culture.
Christians believe that the proclamation of John’s prologue, et verbum caro factum est (“and the Word was made flesh”), offers an eternal salvation infinitely more impressive than the seal of any temporal ruler. Certainly then a textually illuminated glorification of the Word, the literary embodiment of Christ’s incarnation, surpasses a complete absence of calligraphic aestheticism.