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The Production of Manuscripts

he modern idea we have of artists as independent creators devoting their entire lives to the creation of works of art was inherited from the Renaissance.  In the medieval Christian world of which Armenia was a part, artists as architects were usually anonymous and usually members of the clergy. Manuscript production was carried on exclusively by monks or priests employed in churches or monasteries. The performance of the church service was dependent on liturgical books, foremost of which was the Gospels, and, therefore, there was a constant need for them. Each monastery had its scriptorium where manuscripts were copied, illustrated and bound by a team. There was a division of labor and skills, though it was not uncommon for a scribe to illustrate and bind his own manuscript. Some Armenian kings also supported their own scriptoria, employing clergy trained in the various aspects of manuscript production.

The problems of attribution of Armenian painting, however, are much rarer than in Byzantine or medieval European art. Armenian scribes from the earliest times seldom failed to leave a precise memorial at the end of a manuscript after the copying was finished.  In a sense a manuscript was considered incomplete without the personal colophon (in Armenian yishatakaran, literally memorandum or memorial from the verb yishel/hishel, to remember) of the scribe and at times the artist or binder, if they were different people. These concise notices of varying length usually mentioned the scribe's name as well as that of the artist, the date, the place of execution of the manuscript, the name of the patron, the names of the ruler and the reigning catholicos, and a variety of historical and miscellaneous information. Thanks to this information most Armenian miniatures are precisely dated and ascribed to an artist by name. It is only with manuscripts that have been worn by constant use that we are deprived of the exact date and place of production and the names of artist and scribe, because colophons, usually written on the last pages after the text, were lost or torn off during rebinding.  In these cases, date, place and artist are determined by an analysis of the script and the style of the art. 

The Contents of Armenian Miniature Painting 

here is really only a single subject for Armenian miniature painting, at least until the late medieval period: The Life of Christ. The Four Gospels was the most illustrated Armenian text. With few exceptions, all surviving, illustrated Armenian manuscripts dated before 1300 are Gospels; the exceptions are a manuscript of the poems of Gregory of Narek dated 1173 with four portraits of Gregory, a series of Bibles, the earliest from the thirteenth century, illustrated Psalters, among the oldest that of Leo III dated 1283, Lectionaries, among the oldest that of Het'um II of 1286, as well as hymnals and ritual books, again mostly from the late thirteenth century. The earliest secular works to be illustrated also date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they are very rare, the most popular being the Alexander Romance and the Histories of Eghishé and Agat'angeghos. 

Gospel Illustrations

he single work most reproduced in the Armenian manuscript tradition was the Four Gospels. Entire Bibles containing the Old and New Testaments are rare and date from the thirteenth century on, complete New Testaments, that is the Gospels plus the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, are even rarer. About twenty per cent of surviving Armenian manuscripts are Gospels or Bibles. Prior to the seventeenth century, before printed Bibles began to circulate, the percentage was even higher. Nearly all illuminated Armenian manuscripts up to the twelfth century are Gospels. 

Since the Gospels were the most copied and illustrated work in ancient and medieval Armenia, and since the contents of the four Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- are devoted to the life of Christ, the subject matter of Armenian painting is almost entirely composed of scenes from the important moments of His life. Beside the narrative scenes with their figures and landscapes miniature painters had to be skilled in drawing animal and bird forms, geometric and floral decorations of great complexity, Evangelists' and donor portraits, and very ornate letters used from the earliest times to illuminate and ornament canon tables, chapter headpieces and the opening lines of each Gospel. 

The Conventions of Illuminating Armenian Gospels

he illustrating of a Gospel manuscript followed a fixed pattern. Some believe that a general system became traditional already in the fourth century after Christianity was accepted by the Roman Empire. Since the Empire controlled all of Europe, North Africa, and most of the Middle East, including Syria, Palestine, Egypt and most of Armenia, nearly all early Christians came under its jurisdiction. Immediately after the invention of the alphabet in the early fifth century, the work of translating the Bible into Armenian began. The translation was based mainly on Greek manuscripts. Though no illustrated Gospel in western languages from the fourth or fifth centuries survives, and the oldest complete Armenian Gospel is of the ninth century, scholars have concluded that Armenian Gospels, like those of neighboring countries, followed an arrangement established in this early paleo-Christian period. 

Along with the texts of the four Evangelists, the complete Gospels had an elementary index arranged in a series of tabular columns called canons placed at the beginning of the book. These canons were usually decorated and preceded by a text in the form of a letter explaining their use.  It was also customary to include a portrait of each of the Evangelists; these were in time individually placed on the left hand page facing the opening lines of each Gospel  These first pages of text in Armenian Gospels were also decorated quite lavishly.  In the body of the text, which was usually written in two columns to a page, marginal decorations of various kinds -- birds, fish, crosses, floral and geometric motifs, even small narrative scenes  -- were often introduced. Finally, in the more important Gospel manuscripts there was a series of full page paintings usually placed together at the beginning of a manuscript, just after the Canon Tables. These can be divided into three types: symbolic representations (e.g., a cross), portraits (e.g., the Virgin), narrative scenes from the life of Christ (e.g., Baptism). 

Canon Tables

he index to the four Gospels as represented by the canon tables was perfected by Eusebius, a fourth century bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. His explanation of this system was formulated in a letter, always included in Gospel manuscripts just before the canons, addressed to his friend Bishop Carpianus. The letter was placed on two or in early manuscripts on three pages under decorated arches, followed by the columns of the canon tables also under decorated arches or arcades. Both the Mlk'é Gospels of 851-862, the oldest dated Armenian Gospel, and the Etchmiadzin Gospels of 989 have elaborate canon tables. As the Armenian tradition became conventionalized, the Letter of Eusebius was place on two facing pages followed by the ten canon tables often in five pairs, each pair of similar decoration and on facing pages. In the lunettes of the arches of the Eusebian Letter, portraits of Eusebius and Carpianus were executed. Above the columns of the canon tables a variety of birds, animal and human figures were painted sometimes of fabulous origin. Until the eleventh century, the canon arcades were free standing arches, but in that century and later the arc of the arch was enclosed in a decorative rectangle supported by the columns of the arch itself. In some luxury Gospels of the Cilician period, a lavish twin page dedication highlighted in gold was also added and decorated like the canon arcades. 

The source for the decorative program of the canon tables seems to go back to Eusebius, who produced fifty Gospel manuscripts with the canon index commanded by Emperor Constantine before his own death in 338. Though none of these have survived, we know they were recopied already in the same fourth century. Specialists regard certain Armenian canon tables of the ninth and tenth centuries as faithful models of the prototype of five centuries earlier. Medieval Armenian treatises on the decoration of canon tables, one of them by Nersés Shnorhali, have survived, but artists seemed not to follow them word for word.  Nevertheless, such traditions as placing peacocks above the arch of the Eusebian Letter at the beginning of the series, have been consistently and universally maintained. 

Artists from the very beginning, the Mlk'é Gospel is a good illustration, often used the canon tables for painting secular scenes from everyday life, at times even with fabulous creatures. Within an artistic tradition whose task was primarily, at times exclusively, the decoration of the Holy Scriptures, painters simply had no outlet to render contemporary or imaginative scenes. Within the context of Gospel decoration, in which the figures and scenes of regular miniatures were proscribed by the Gospel narrative, the neutral support of the canon tables -- collectively nothing more than an index -- was apparently an acceptable medium for non-religious images. 
 

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. As with every other facet of Gospel illumination, the canon tables were decorated in an ever evolving manner though the essential elements remained the same. The variety used by the best craftsmen not only demonstrated their personal skills but reflected the styles and tastes in various regions of Armenian in different epochs. The complexity of the patterned decoration of the canons of the eleventh century Trebizond Gospel or the elegance and beauty of those of Cilician Gospels of the thirteenth century, demonstrate that the most commonplace motif can serve as an adequate support for brilliant and innovative art.  

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Updated 30 August  1999 ..
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