What is Calligraphy? Definition, History, and Examples

This is a guide covering Calligraphy.

Modern forms of written communication — emails and text messages — have eliminated the need for handwritten notes and letters.

Technology may save time and effort in communicating more clearly, but it cannot replace the human need for beauty. 

Calligraphy is one such form of beauty: the beauty in writing.

But what is calligraphy? How can we define calligraphy? And is it the same as decorative writing or lettering? 

What follows is a primer in calligraphy. We will learn about calligraphy in detail through definitions and examples.

So let’s get started.

What is Calligraphy (Definition)?

So what do we mean by calligraphy? 

The word ‘calligraphy’ is a combination of two Greek words: kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write). So, in other words, we can say that calligraphy refers to writing in aesthetically pleasing forms. 

It is a visual art form that focuses on manipulating symbols and letters to produce beautiful writing. 

According to Claude Mediaville, calligraphy is the “art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner.” —

(Source: Calligraphy: From Calligraphy to Abstract Painting.)

What is the Purpose of Calligraphy?

As I mentioned in the previous section, calligraphy is a visual art form. Its purpose is the same as any other art form, i.e. to evoke an artistic reaction in the viewer.

The purpose of calligraphy is to “show integrity, harmony, some sort of ancestry, rhythm and creative fire.”

Calligraphy is not like ordinary writing meant for ordinary communication. Calligraphy is art in the sense that its purpose is to produce aesthetic writing. 

The emphasis, therefore, is not on readability or even communication but finding the proper pen movement or brush strokes to express one’s artistic creativity

Calligraphy has also played a significant role in the advancement of the written language throughout the world.

Why is it Called Calligraphy?

Calligraphy literally means beautiful handwriting or elegant penmanship. It emphasizes the writing process and not the decorative aspects. Calligraphy achieves its beauty through elegant letterforms.

The Greeks coined the term calligraphy first, which meant beautiful writing in their language, and that is how it came to be known as calligraphy.

How did Calligraphy Originate?

The origination of calligraphy is debated among paleographers and historians. However, it is believed that calligraphy originated among the Phoenicians in around 1200 BC. 

After that, it is believed to have been taken up by the Greeks who passed it on to the Romans.

The Romans were the ones who really advanced calligraphy into an accessible art form leading to its adoption by the wider Roman community. 

Another theory singles out the Shang dynasty of China as its originator. The Chinese have a unique style in calligraphy where, instead of letters, they use symbols and characters.



What are the Main Types/Styles of Calligraphy?

There are numerous types in calligraphy, but all these variations or hands broadly fall into these three main styles:

1. Western Calligraphy

Based on the Latin text, Western calligraphy is widely used in the Western world on cards, invitations, inscriptions on certificates, et cetera. 

Western calligraphy is one of the most advanced forms of calligraphies spanning many sub-styles.

2. Oriental Calligraphy

The oriental calligraphy is mainly used in East Asia, primarily in China, Japan, and Korea. 

The oriental calligraphy has a meditative aspect to it. The letters are written with a broader and longer brush requiring more movement than in other forms of calligraphy.

3. Islamic Calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy is associated chiefly with Islamic spirituality. It is also sometimes called Arabic calligraphy — because the scribes write in Arabic letters — but this geographical or ethnic specification is not true because many Islamic calligraphers weren’t Arab.

Islamic calligraphy is also a geometrical and artistic expression of the beauty of God. This type of calligraphy can be found in Islamic architecture as well.

What is the Difference Between Lettering and Calligraphy?

People often confuse lettering with calligraphy. Calligraphy is known by many names, but lettering is a specific way of drawing letters that may or may not be related to writing out the words at all.

Lettering is focused on the decorative aspects of drawing out each letter and how it lends to the aesthetics of the overall composition. In that way, it is much like illustration or drawing.

On the other hand, as previously mentioned, Calligraphy is focused on the actual art of beautiful handwriting.

Individual strokes in calligraphy combine to form letters and words, but the purpose is to write letters.

The idea, therefore, is not drawing out the letters or decorating them with colors and shapes but writing in a creative way that is also aesthetically pleasing.

Aesthetics are equally important in both art forms, yet the process of achieving that is different.

Final Remarks

Handwriting may have lost its prestige due to the ubiquity of technology. However, calligraphy has survived the onslaught of technology by eking out highly niche domains for itself in arts and design.

Calligraphy encapsulates within it the story of the written word. Put simply; it is the art of beautiful handwriting that gives expression to our inner creativity.

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