Stamped and Tooled
By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian
history of leather work in Armenia is known exclusively through bindings
of manuscripts. The practice of protecting a manuscript with boards covered
with leather goes back to the very invention of the codex in the first
Christian centuries. Before those books were in the form of scrolls or
continuous rolls of papyrus. The idea of folding leaves of papyrus and
then attaching the folded leaves by sewing one to the other through the
fold produced the codex or book as we know it. This invention allowed the
reader to find the passage he wanted by simply turning the pages instead
of the old method of unrolling a long scroll. When papyrus, a very fragile
material not easily folded, was replaced by the more robust parchment or
vellum durability was added but the pages tended to curl. Thus wooden boards
were added at the front and back of the codex to keep the pages flat and
protect them from tearing. These were attached to the body of the manuscript
by the threads used to sew the gatherings of folded pages together. To
conceal the sewing threads and to consolidate the binding a single piece
of leather was stretched over the upper and lower covers and the spine
of the codex.
of the dry climatic conditions in Egypt, bindings from the early Christian
centuries have survived on Coptic religious manuscripts. Already these
earliest covers, as well as those from the centuries that followed in the
Christian and the neighboring Islamic world, were decorated by tooling.
The decoration was a mixture of geometric forms -- circles, squares, stars
-- and a variety of braided patterns as well as small stamped designs like
The binding of a manuscript is its
protector and preserver. If text and illuminations are the flesh of a codex,
the binding is its skin and bones. It is gratuitous, surely, to emphasize
that there are nearly as many Armenian bindings preserved as there are
manuscripts. Unfortunately, they have been little studied.
Armenian binding technique, like
that of the Greeks and Syrians, followed the conventions developed by Coptic
binders at the birth of the codex. The blind tooling technique used by
the Copts, and later by Islamic binders, was incorporated into the Armenian
craft. Designs were executed on the leather (which was usually moistened)
with a blunt metal stylus, ruler, compass, punch and, eventually, enhanced
with iron stamps of varying motifs As in other artistic media, however,
Armenia went its own way, especially in the decoration of the leather.
earliest preserved Armenian leather bindings are from the eleventh century;
the earliest binder's colophons are from the tenth-eleventh centuries.
In this period bookbinding had become a specialized and highly developed
art in medieval Armenia. Elaborately decorated bindings followed
the artistic fashion of the time, for instance borrowing designs used for
the ornamentation of memorial cross stones or khach'k'ars.
The most characteristic decorative
motifs of early Armenian bindings were an elaborately braided cross mounted
on a stepped pedestal in the central field of the upper cover and a rectangle
filled with braiding in the central field of the lower cover. The popularity
of this braided cross motif is attested to by its appearance in drawings
and miniatures in several tenth to thirteenth century manuscripts.
Another motif, a complicated geometric rosette, is found as early as the
late twelfth century; its inspiration is almost certainly from early Egyptian
Decoration was not, however, limited
to these designs. A large variety of geometric forms was used, and later,
floral as well as the traditional braided bands were employed. Also typically
Armenian was the affixing of metal studs, often silver, to outline a design.
Diverse stamps -- guilloche, small oval, double oval, dot, small rosette
-- were used, but animal or bird designs met with in the Byzantine tradition
are lacking. Early bindings usually had flaps and these too were decorated.
Distinct styles developed in the various regions of Armenian life. Some
centers like New Julfa were attracted by westernized decoration, while
others far removed from contact with voyagers and merchants, such as the
monastery of Tatev, held strictly to the traditional motifs. This archaizing
tendency coupled with the repeated rebinding of often used manuscripts
such as Gospels, present problems of dating even when there are binder's
particular feature of later Armenian bindings, especially those from New
Julfa in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, is the presence
of stamped inscriptions, usually dated, on the leather covers. These inscribed
bindings, of which more than one hundred are recorded, provided precise
data for the study of late Armenian leather craftsmanship. In the same
category, but more luxurious, are the many more manuscript bindings covered
with chiseled silver plaques of great beauty. Armenian silver bindings
survive from the thirteenth century. There are also enameled bindings,
and several bindings with oil paintings executed directly upon the leather
are known from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries
As in all other areas of Armenian
art, leather bindings differ from region to region and century to century,
but they share the characteristics mentioned above and thereby belong to
a single recognizable family.