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Calligraphy has an extensive history spanning across ages and empires. Still a popular art form today, it has been linked to mental and physical health benefits similar to those experienced by people who practise meditation.
Calligraphy developed independently in almost every culture around the world, from China in 4000 BC to 600 BC in Rome. One of the most famous examples of Western calligraphy is the Book of Kells. Created in a Columban monastery in either Britain or Ireland around 800 AD, this Latin manuscript is emblematic of Insular illumination and contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. The Dunhuang manuscripts are a similarly important example of calligraphy from Asia. They were discovered in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, China, in the early 20th century. The manuscripts are a group of religious and secular documents and include several styles of the earliest examples of Tibetan calligraphy, such as Uchen, an upright, block font style, and Umê, a semi-formal form of the alphabet.
Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century resulted in the decline of calligraphy, which was time-consuming in comparison. By 1455, Gutenberg had printed several copies of the Bible, each consisting of three volumes of text in Latin. Additionally, each page had 42 lines of text and colour illustrations.
Today, calligraphy surrounds us in multiple forms and has influenced the creation of countless typefaces, including the Johnston typeface. Invented by the “father of modern calligraphy”, Edward Johnston, this typeface is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever taken the London Underground, as it is still used as the font on tube stations today.
Traditional calligraphy is also still in use and is hugely popular for those writing bullet journals or wedding invitations. A calligrapher even recently married into to the British royal family—during her time an aspiring actress and long before her engagement to Prince Harry, Meghan Markle worked as a wedding calligrapher in Beverley Hills. She was hired to hand write the wedding invitations for the actress Paula Patton, who claimed calligraphy to be a “lost art”.
There have been countless mental benefits linked to practices of calligraphy. Research has found that calligraphy therapy enhances cognitive function in older people with mild cognitive impairment, and it has been recommended that the art form be incorporated as part of routine programmes within residential care settings in order to provide stimulation and relaxation. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh practices calligraphy for mindfulness, and has exhibited his work all over the world in order to raise awareness of this form of mindfulness. On his website, he expands on this meditative practise. “Writing calligraphy is a practice of meditation. In my calligraphy, there is ink, tea, breathing, mindfulness, and concentration.”
Not only are there mental benefits to practicing calligraphy, but physical benefits as well. Studies have found that the practice of Chinese calligraphic handwriting has the ability to decrease individuals’ heart rates and increase their skin temperature. These effects are similar to the calming effects found in people who practice meditation. These soothing results of calligraphy are likely to be caused by the concentration needed to create a flawless outcome, and offer a promising new approach to reducing stress.
Calligraphy has a deep history within countless cultures and its strength is clear, not just as a pasttime, but as a promising development into the investigation of mental health.
This article was written in association with Wessex Scene, a student publication based at the University of Southampton.