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Armenian Manuscript Painting

By Dr.Dickran Kouymjian 

Introduction to Armenian Painting

f painting in its broadest meaning is the representation of an image on a flat surface -- on walls (fresco), on wood (icon), in manuscripts (miniature), on canvas (painting), on floors (mosaic) -- we know the history of Armenian painting almost exclusively from the study of the decoration of manuscripts. Monumental wall painting was practiced in Armenia, but was much less generalized than neighboring Byzantine or Coptic traditions and very little of what was produced has survived.  The extent Armenian mosaics are strongly influenced by foreign traditions. Icon painting was never practiced in Armenia. Canvas painting is relatively plentiful, but dates for the most part to the eighteenth century and later. Thus, whereas the history of Byzantine painting in the Middle Ages is dependent as much (perhaps even more) on architectural decoration -- mosaics and frescoes -- and icons as on illuminations, the Armenian tradition is known almost exclusively from miniature paintings. 

Iconography: The Composition of a Scene

n understanding of Armenian painting requires the explanation of two terms used universally in art history: "iconography" and "style." Iconography is the study ("graphy") of the "icon" (in Greek "image"); what we call an icon today was understood by the Greeks as a holy image usually painted on wood. Art historians use the term iconography to refer to the study of the formal composition of a picture and the elements of which it is made. Iconography also studies the changes and developments of compositional  elements over time. For instance, in the study of the iconography of the Crucifixion, specialists identify the elements of the representation: the presence or absence of the thieves or other witnesses, the clothing of the figures, the background devices, and so forth.  These iconographic details help historians trace the influences of other artists and traditions on the painter. Armenians often innovated on accepted iconography of the earliest Christian centuries. T'oros Roslin  in the thirteenth century is among several important Armenian artists, some of them anonymous, who illustrated the standard cycle in totally new ways or who painted episodes rarely represented, thus breaking tradition with the earlier, generally conservative and standardized Christian iconography. 

Style: The Artist's Expression

he compositional elements of a painting are, on the other hand, unimportant when discussing style. The artist's way of painting, his drawing, colors, shading, facial expressions, rendering of landscape, all of these and other painting techniques make up the style of a picture. "Impressionism," as an example, is a style that depends heavily on color, rather than outlining, to render shapes and volumes. The "classical" style refers to the manner developed by the Greeks and continued by the Romans of accurately portraying the human form on a flat surface. The Greeks were interested in showing the body in motion, in revealing the shape and bulk of the body under its clothing.  They tried to paint or sculpt the face and body as idealistically or realistically as possible. Classical artists developed rules of proportion and the best artists tried to follow them closely.  In later periods a "classicizing" style was one that tried to imitate or at least pay attention to the tenets of classical art [89].  Armenians, because of their strong dependence on Byzantine Greek models, favored a classicizing style in the illumination of luxurious Gospels. 

Much of Armenian art, however, shows a style far removed from classical tendencies.  Various ways have been used to describe such non-classical styles: naive, primitive, provincial, monastic, native. We find native or Armenian styles in the Vaspurakan school of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, or in such manuscripts as the Gospels of 966 in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, or the Gospels of Horomos of 1211 or of Khach'en/Arts'akh of 1224 both now in the Matenadaran in Erevan. These works, and many others, though different from each, still share the common trait of ignoring the canons of classical representation. They display a greater interest in the expression of the figures, which are usually shown frontally; they often use color and design for purely decorative purposes, apparently indifferent to the criticism that their figures and their garments do not look as they are in real life. Often there is a naive quality in these miniatures, producing marvelous artistic effects. At times, however, these illuminations are simply the work of untrained and unskilled monks assigned the task of illustrating manuscripts in a monastic scriptorium. 

The eleventh century in Armenian painting is probably the moment when classical and non-classical styles are most clearly opposed.  Manuscripts that were commission by the aristocracy are not only luxurious, but invariably demonstrate a classicizing style.  They are further characterized by superior parchment, goldleaf backgrounds and expensive materials. In short, the royalty and higher clergy demanded works in the best tradition of the Byzantine imperial court.  Manuscripts that originated in rural settings or monasteries used more modest materials, employing yellow paint for gold. Their style was non-classical, usually hieratic, and in this early period the figures were painted without background against the plain white parchments. These provincial manuscripts were almost without exception painted across the height of the page, requiring the viewer to turn the manuscript around to see the scene in its normal position.  Luxury manuscripts, however, have their miniatures in the normal upright position.  This difference in orientation of the paintings between luxury and monastic manuscripts is virtually unknown in the centuries before and after the eleventh. 

Illuminated Armenian Manuscripts

he dependence of the history of Armenian art on a single medium, manuscript painting, is not as serious a handicap as it may seem. Fortunately, a very large number of Armenian manuscripts are preserved, nearly 30,000, dating from the ninth to the nineteenth centuries, and produced in every region inhabited by Armenians. Most manuscripts are devoid of painting; however, at least 10,000 are illuminated or decorated in some way and of these some 5,000 to 7,000 contain one or more miniatures. The total number of individual works of art contained in Armenian manuscripts (excluding marginal decorations) in the tens of thousands. 

The study of this vast quantity of art and, therefore, the history of Armenian painting, is still at its very beginning. The manuscripts and the works of art they contain are preserved in public museums and libraries, the most important of which are the Matenadaran in Erevan (11,000 whole manuscripts), the Library of the Mekhitarist Brotherhood at San Lazzaro, Venice (4,000), Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem (4,000), the Library of the Mekhitarist Brotherhood in Vienna (1,200), the Armenian Catholic Monastery of Bzummar in Lebanon (1,000), the Armenian Monastery at New Julfa, Isfahan (1,000) and important collections of fewer than 1,000 manuscripts are kept at the Catholicossate of Etchmiadzin, the Oriental Institute, Leningrad, the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, Bodleian Library, Oxford, the British Library, London, the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, the Catholicossate of Cilicia, Antelias, University of California, Los Angeles, and the Vatican Library.  Hundreds of other libraries have small, but artistically very important, collections, for instance the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, the Pierpoint Morgan Museum in New York, the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, and the John Rylands Library in Manchester. 

To date no detailed history of Armenian miniature painting has been published.  However, the meticulous work of the late Sirarpie Der Nersessian, spanning six decades, has prepared the groundwork and provided a methodology for such a history.  Her major study on the painting of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, when published, will serve as a model for a general history of all of Armenian art. 
 

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. The most important problem in the study of Armenian painting is access to the works. Very few manuscripts have been adequately and individually published. Until recently, the major collections of manuscripts lacked published catalogues. This situation has been changed in the past four decades thanks to the publication of manuscript catalogues undertaken by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Though these catalogues usually list the miniature paintings in each manuscript, they are not designed to included illustrations.  Furthermore, only volume one of a projected detailed catalogue of the Matenadaran collection has thus far appeared, describing just 300 of the 11,000 manuscripts in the collection; scholars must rely on the abridged two volume catalogue, which, unfortunately, fails to list illuminations. To a lesser degree the same can be said of the Venice Mekhitarist collection; the first three volumes of the detailed printed catalogue cover fewer than a quarter of the manuscripts. On the other hand, a large number of albums of the most important miniatures from various collections have been published. Yet, the history of Armenian painting cannot be limitedto its masterpieces; it most be based on the works of all periods, regions, styles, and artists.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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