What is Calligraphy?

The dictionary definition of calligraphy is ‘handwriting or penmanship’, or simply ‘beautiful writing’. The word has its root in the Greek language. ‘Kalli’ means beautiful and ‘graphia’ is the Greek word for writing. It is therefore the visual art of writing. A more contemporary definition of calligraphy goes like this: ‘the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious and skilful manner’.

 Islamic Calligraphy


It is in the Roman alphabet of the first century AD that the roots of our present day letters lie. Before this, different civilizations used pictorial symbols to express words and concepts. Derivations were made from these abstract characters which retained their original meanings and eventually symbols which would represent sound were created. There were two reasons for the widespread use of the Roman alphabet. Primarily was it’s ability to record language in the most systematic and versatile way. The other was the unquestionable authority that the Roman Empire had. This made the Roman alphabet a standard from writing all throughout the Western parts of Europe.

As this style of writing was being used widely, there came to be introduced many changes in it’s style and method for practical needs such as increasing the speed and lessening costs of production. Before the invention of printing, each copy of each book was hand-written by a scribe in a scriptorium on materials such as vellum or parchment with a quill in one of the period bookhands like rustic, carolingian, blackletter, etc.


Then, the printing press was invented in the fifteenth-century and this led to the coming of the age of mechanical reproduction. This trend continues till date, more so in the age of computer technology, which has led to desktop publishing, etc. However, many people crave for hand-made work such as calligraphy especially because mechanically reproduced work more often than not lacks uniqueness.



The art of calligraphy developed in many parts of the world in different times, with differing styles and tools used. These can be broadly classified as:


  • Western Calligraphy- Western Calligraphy has evolved from the 10th century and still continues to do so. The most recognisable use of the Western Calligraphy is in the Latin script which mad it’s appearance around 600 BC. There were changes in the style of scripting with the coming to power of a new dynasty. Around the 8th century evolved the Caroline script from the Carolingian Dynasty Empire. The 15th century saw the development of the humanist minuscule, with the 17th century appeared the Batarde and finally the English script was developed in the 18th century.  


The tools used include a flat-balled or round-nipped pen, brush, water-based ink, high quality paper or parchment, knife for removing work, light boxes and templates. Western Calligraphy follows strict rules and geometric patterns. One of the most prominent examples is The Holy Bible.


  • Eastern Asian Calligraphy- This encompasses the calligraphy styles of China, Japan and Korea. Like in the case of Western Calligraphy, each dynasty of China has it’s own history of calligraphy styles. The Jiaguwen characters became popular during the Shang Dynasty. In Imperial China, the Lishu or the clerical style, which has similarities with the modern text, owes it’s origin to Qin Shi Huangdi and the Kaishu or traditional regular script is attributed to Wang Xizhi. The modern printing style has arrived from the Song Dynasty’s printing press.


The Four Treasures of the Study: the ink brushes to write Chinese characters, Chinese ink, paper, and inkstone, known as the Four Friends of the Study in Korea. Calligraphers also use four tools paperweights and desk pads for their work. The shape, size and quality of the ink brush, density of the ink and the quality of the paper is what determines the kind of calligraphic work that will be produced.


  • Southern Asian Calligraphy– This stands for Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan Calligraphy. In case of Nepalese Calligraphy, the Ranjana script is the main. It has had great impact on Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism and hence it has been used for many Buddhist texts. Tibetan Calligraphy has it’s roots in the Indic scripts. It is widely used for all religious and secular purposes and can be seen being used in a lot of places starting from their prayer wheels to the letters of Dalai Lama.

Indian Calligraphy goes back to the reign of King Asoka when inscriptions were carved on stone. There were two main types of Calligraphic writing styles- the Kharosti and the Brahmi. Surfaces such as burnt clay, smoke treated palm leaves, copper and birch bark were all used throughout the history of Ancient India for the purposes of calligraphic writing.


  • Islamic Calligraphy– Islamic art follows geometric patterns and the best examples of these can be seen on mosque walls. The same holds true for Islamic Calligraphy. It has evolved along with the evolution of the religion and the Arabic language. Muslims consider calligraphy as the highest form of artistic expression since to them it is the language of the spiritual world. The Ottoman Era is considered to be the peak of development of the Islamic Calligraphy.

Historians believe that the Persian script was invented around the 600-500 BC for inscriptions on monuments for the Achaemenid kings. These considered of horizontal, vertical and diagonal nail-shaped letters. Among the contemporary forms of Persian writing, ‘Nasta’liq’ is the most popular.


Calligraphy is used even in the present day for adding artistic touches to book designs, logo designs, signs, etc. Calligraphy has great contribution in the development of the modern day writing style, in typeface designs, etc. It is used for many practical purposes such as writing certificates, wedding cards, and for religious purposes.

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