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reed magazine logoMarch 2010

Inscribed in Stone Continued

four photos

Clockwise: Roman alphabet, Scriptura Monumentalis, executed by Fr. Edward M. Catich, With Lloyd Reynolds, 1964, An analysis of a letter R, Catich liturgical art

His instruction reflected an historical methodology of art. He began by teaching me about the reed pen, which he called “the granddaddy of writing tools”; I came to use it a great deal of the time. Ned believed in self-sufficiency, having made his own way through life. He taught me to cut the bamboo reed pen and to insert the piece of metal for the ink reservoir. Next, it was the red-sable lettering brush, which, he said, gave the Roman letters their nuances and distinctive serifs.

For many centuries, the leading authorities on the subject of Roman letters were in agreement that the shape of written letters evolved from the stone inscriptions. They also maintained that the stone inscriptions were designed with hard-pointed tools. Both of these misconceptions were dislodged in 1968 when Ned published The Origin of the Serif, in which he argued that the stone inscriptions were designed by brush writing. No one before had even admitted this as a possibility; in fact, the eminent British authority Graily Hewitt had declared that the brush had nothing whatever to do with the development of the Roman alphabet. Nonetheless, Ned marshaled impressive graphical and paleographical evidence in support of his theory—then proved it by writing the letters with his brush and incising them in stone.

After working with the reed pen and brush at great length, I finally moved on to the chisel and mallet. The process of stonecutting required great precision and patience. To make a stone inscription, I had to cut a piece of black slate to the correct size using a hacksaw. No electric tools in his studio! Next, I used a flat stone to hone the surface of the slate to a smooth consistency for the inscription. Then, I painted the letters onto the smooth slate using red paint, as the first century Roman scribes would have done.

The actual incising began by cutting a line down the middle of the brush stroke. The chisel would cut one side, then the other, until the edge of the brush stroke was reached. A definite rhythm was necessary to keep the cuts evenly deep and all at the same angle. When the inscription was finished, the letters were painted or gilded with gold leaf. A protective coat of sealer made the piece of work complete.

It was inspiring to watch the master at work. He could cut a letter from beginning to end in 20 minutes. The student was happy if he could do the same in an hour.

His remarkable attitude towards teaching was evident in 1963, when he came to Reed to cut the inscriptions for Eliot Hall and invited students to mount the raised platform at the south entrance to Eliot and try their hand at cutting. [Ed. Note: See Letters.] He also cut inscriptions in slate for Old Dorm Block and Music and created the alphabet stone that is prominently displayed in the library’s special collections.

Years later, when I was teaching calligraphy at Reed, I invited Ned to return to campus. In addition to students, his classes drew many professional letter-artists. At his closing lecture, there was standing room only.

Edward Catich enriched the Reed campus with his art and has left a lasting heritage, inscribed in stone, which is worthy of honor in the history of the college.

Robert J. Palladino taught calligraphy at Reed from 1969 to 1984. Today, he is a retired Catholic priest, but still an active calligrapher, and lives on a pioneer farm on the Old Barlow Trail.


Edward Catich’s volumes on Roman majuscules are widely acclaimed as the leading resources on the writing of the Roman Empire.

The Trajan Inscription in Rome, by Edward M. Catich (Catfish Press, 1961).

The Origin of the Serif: Brush writing and Roman letters, by Edward M. Catich (Catfish Press, 1968).

reed magazine logoMarch 2010