An image in a fine late-North Renaissance cartouche represents the father of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther (1483-1546), with his protector Friedrich the Wise (1463-1525) on the left-hand side and Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) and John George I of Saxony (1585-1656) on the right.
The images are composed of fine black and gold lines and of a miniature text in German language, recounting the story of Luther’s life and work. The other text on below the image glorifies the protagonist on the image and is accompanied with the biblical quotes in two cartouches on the side.
The drawing was made at the 100th anniversary of Luther’s presentation of the Ninety-five Theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, possibly in Wittenberg or Dresden and depicts the contemporary elector of Saxony John George I, who ruled from 1611 on.
The portrait of Philipp Melanchthon appears to be deliberately erased, possibly by a later owner of the image, who opposed the views of this theologian.
The micrography in German art reached its peak in the late 17th and early 18th centuries with the family Püchler. Comparing to those somehow younger images, which were mostly reproduced as etchings and copper engravings with a miniature script, often difficult to read, the writing on our image is crisp and the letters are clearly recognizable, when enlarged.
A Brief History of Micrography
Micrography (from the Greek ‘micrographia,’ meaning small writing) is an art form first developed by Jewish scribes in Egypt and Israel around the 9th Century. Traditionally, Jewish artists were banned from drawing images of living creatures due to the rabbinical interpretation of the Second Commandment which states: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of anything] that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” As with traditional Islamic art, Jewish artists were thus relegated to drafting calligraphy and geometric forms. However, rabbinical rulings permitted forms that might optically appear to be of banned subjects to be constructed, as long as they were composed entirely of calligraphy.
Artists brilliantly constructed elaborate designs composed entirely of microscopic lines of text. During the Medieval period, the art form flourished in Iberia and Central Europe, regions with strong Jewish artistic patronage. It is important, however, to remember that due to the extreme sophistication and technical difficulty of the medium, micrography never became a popular art form, but was reserved for appreciation in rarefied circles.
Appropriately, an especially fine early surviving example of micrography is found inside the ‘The Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch: Book of Ecclesiastes,’ made in Southern Germany around 1300 (British Library Add. MS 15282, f. 302), in which amazing anamorphic forms are composed of fine lines of Hebrew text. Another lovely example is the Rösel Bible (Jewish, Germany, 13th Century), in which a splendid pair of opposing lions is formed entirely by micrography (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin).
During the early modern age in Central Europe, following the influence of Jewish artists, micrography was picked up by a small number of Christian artists. Manuscript and woodcut micrographic designs appeared in Germany and Switzerland in the 16th Century. However, the apogee of micrography, outside of the Jewish community, was represented by the stunning engraved portraits made by the German artist Johann Michael Püchler in the early 18th century.
References: Cf: Friedrich Polleross, in: Hecht, Christian (Hrsg.): Beständig im Wandel : Innovationen – Verwandlungen – Konkretisierungen ; Festschrift für Karl Möseneder zum 60. Geburtstag, Berlin 2009, Schrift -Bilder. Zum Werk des Mikrographen Johann Michael Püchler d. J. (1679–1709), pp. 261-281. Schrift als Bild, Berlin 2001, passim.