Frescoes &
Art of Book
Portraits of the Evangelists

n the earliest Gospels, the Evangelists were often portrayed in pairs, either standing or seated.  Such is the case of the oldest surviving Christian manuscript, the Rabbula Gospels, written in Syriac in 586. Gradually in the Byzantine tradition, to which Armenian artists owe so much, a preference developed for separate portraits of each of the Evangelists who were usually shown seated before a writing stand in the act of composing.  The original model for this pose goes back to portraits of philosophers and physicians in pre-Christian classical manuscripts. The earliest Armenian Gospels display both traditions.  The Mlk'é Gospels reserve a single full page portrait for each Evangelists, but two are shown seated and two standing. The Tarkmanch'ats' Gospels of 966 in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, have pairs of evangelists painted at the end of the texts between Gospels. The Trebizond Gospels of the eleventh century had both individual portraits of the Evangelists seated and a fifth folio page on which all four Evangelists are represented, though in separate squares. In time, however, the portraits developed a standardized form, each separate, usually rendered in a seated position facing the first highly ornamented page of text. 

The elaborate title pages, crowned by a decorated rectangular or trilobed headpiece, usually featured the symbol associated with each of the Evangelists in their decorative scheme. These were borrowed from those of Ezekiel's chariot in the Old Testament. Three were animal: the lion of St. Mark, the ox of St. Luke, and the eagle of St. John; St. Mathew was represented by an angel. By the twelfth century these figures were painted near the initial letter of the opening line of each Gospel. By the thirteenth century, especially in Cilician workshops, they were often fashion into the shape of the first letter of the respective texts. 

Portraits in Gospels were not limited just to the Evangelists. From earliest times the Virgin, was portrayed either alone or with Jesus. Gospels also provided Armenian art with real life portraits of contemporaries. The donor who commissioned amanuscript often required that his own likeness be included. One of the most striking of early portraits is that of high Byzantine official Hovhannés the Protospathery in the Gospel made for him in 1007 in Adrianople now in the Venice Mekhitarist collection. It is from similar donor portraits of Armenian kings and queens of the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries that we have some idea of the likeness of medieval aristocracy. 

Narrative Miniatures

he subjects of the major miniatures of an illuminated Gospels were taken from those events in Christ's life most celebrated by the church. Old Testament scenes, especially the Sacrifice of Abraham, are sometimes found in older Gospels as parallels to New Testament episodes, and naturally in illustrated Bibles and Lectionaries. The oldest Armenian miniatures, dated by formal and stylistic considerations to the late sixth or early seventh century, are four paintings on two leaves of parchment removed from their original manuscript, no doubt a Gospel book, and bound at the end of the famous Etchmiadzin Gospels of 989.  These "Final Miniatures" of the Etchmiadzin Gospel, as they are called by art historians, represent two Annunciations (one to the High Priest Zechariah and the other to the Virgin), the Presentation of the Magi (a representation of the Nativity), and the Baptism. Armenian manuscripts of the ninth and tenth centuries confirm the practice of painting large scenes on individual pages and grouping these miniatures of varying number together with the canon tables and the Evangelists' portraits in a special gathering at the beginning of the Gospels. This is the case for all illustrated Armenian Gospel manuscripts of the ninth and the tenth centuries (there are about fifteen), the single exception being the Gospels of 966 already mentioned. 

The Gospel Cycle: The Life of Christ

n both style and the elements of composition Armenian art is deeply indebted to Byzantine art.  The Byzantine church, part of the universal church until the formal break with Rome in the eleventh century, developed a more rigid structure of great church feasts than did the Armenian, which after the fifth century went its own independent way.  In the realm of art, the Greeks were deeply attached to the icon, a religious painting on wood, whereas the Armenians seemed never attracted by the medium and generally were against image worship and even their display in church. The Byzantine liturgical calendar celebrated the great Christian feasts; these were the main subjects for icons along with the Virgin  and favorite saints.  By the eleventh and twelfth centuries large icons were painted which depicted in chronological sequence the church feasts. A standard cycle of twelve scenes came into being, whether because of the convenience of dividing icons into twelve panels or whether by association with the number of Apostles or both reasons, is not important. For centuries after, this cycle of twelve included the following subjects: the Annunciation, Nativity, Presentation in the Temple, Baptism, Transfiguration, Raising of Lazarus, Entry into Jerusalem, Crucifixion, Resurrection , Ascension, Pentecost, and Dormition of the Virgin.  The first six of these is concerned with Jesus's life from birth to his last week; the second six are concerned with Christ's passion and events following it. (The meaning of the scenes will be explained under the section devoted to iconography.) 

All of these episodes are also important in the Armenian church except for the Dormition.  In Armenia the worship of the Virgin Mary never developed as it did in the West. The Dormition of the Virgin, that is her death, is represented very few times in Armenian miniatures and usually under foreign influence. The Armenians, at least in their art, never developed a fixed number of twelve liturgical scenes, and cycles of sixteen miniatures and more are common.  Other scenes were also employed; miracles like the Marriage Feast at Cana, the Healing of the Paralytic, Washing of the Feet, Last Supper, Entombment, Jesus with the Apostles after the Resurrection, Massacre or the Innocents, and the Stoning of St. Stephen. 

We have already observed that in the Final Miniatures of the Etchmiadzin Gospel  there were only four scenes and the largest surviving cycle until the year 1000, contained in a late tenth century manuscript now in the Vienna Mekhitarist collection, is composed of only five scenes grouped together, beginning with the Sacrifice of Abraham (an event not part of the Gospel narrative), followed by the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, and ending with the Crucifixion. In the eleventh century, the first part of which was a period of great prosperity under the Bagratids, Arts'runis and other dynasties, we have a clearer picture of the composition of Gospel miniatures. Of the forty surviving illustrated Gospel manuscripts or fragments from the eleventh century, some fifteen have one or more narrative paintings as opposed to only five from all the preceding periods. Five of these manuscripts have cycles of from seven to fifteen miniatures grouped together at the beginning of the codex. Scenes such as the Visitation, Last Supper, Betrayal of Judas, Descent from the Cross, Entombment, and the Women at the Empty Tomb (Resurrection), make their appearance for the first time. 

Two manuscripts from the middle of the eleventh century have very extensive cycles of large and small miniatures of major and minor episodes scattered throughout the four Gospels rather than grouped at the beginning.  One of these codices, the famous, partially mutilated, Gospels of King Gagik of Kars , now in the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, is of great artistic beauty and in style very dependent on Byzantine court art.  The other, the newly discovered Gospel of the Catholicos, now in the Matenadaran in Erevan and probably executed in Arts'akh, is painted in a provincial, Armenian style, far removed from the classical tradition of the other.  When manuscript production started again in the second half of the twelfth and especially the thirteenth centuries after the devastation of the Seljuk Turkish invasions, both methods of illustration -- grouping narrative miniatures together at the beginning or continuously illustrating the text with an expanded cycle -- were practiced. 

Cilician Period 

he greatest moment of Armenian miniature painting is the thirteenth century  The wealth of the new Armenian kingdom of Cilicia situated in the mountains surrounding the Mediterranean coastal plain allowed the nobility and high ranking clergy to sponsor the production of luxury Gospels. Contact with the West through the Crusades and Italian merchants also contributed to the creation of a highly sophisticated and eclectic art. In the same period several Armenian manuscripts were executed in Italy. 

The most distinguished artist of the epoch was indisputably T'oros Roslin, who during the 1260s headed the scriptorium at the catholicossal see of Hromkla. Seven of his signed manuscripts have survived and another and some fragments are also clearly attributed to him. His art is characterized by a delicacy of color, a very fine classical treatment of figures and their garments, an elegance of line, and an innovative iconography. Roslin was also a very accomplished scribe as well. The works that have come down to us are all extremely luxurious and use gold copiously for backgrounds and details. Roslin's decorative skill as seen on canon tables and headpieces is also rich and varied. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about his life nor the dates of the painter's birth and death. 

Other artists working either with Roslin or in neighboring centers were also very skilled. Toward the end of the century, the delicate rendering of Roslin gives way to a more nervous, mannered style evident in the superb Lectionary of king Het'um dated 1286 with more than 200 miniatures of varying size. Several manuscripts display this highly mannered style, but all of their artists remain anonymous. 

In the next century the name of Sarkis Pidzak dominates artistic production. Though very prolific, he has much reduced the artistic conventions of the best of the Cilician artists such as Roslin and those working in the mannered style of the end of the thirteenth century. His figures are smaller and much less well drawn; his colors are bright but lacking the subtlety and renaissance echo of the third-quarter of the thirteenth century. Another important miniaturist of the fourteenth century working in the north, in Greater Armenia, was T'oros of Taron. His manuscripts are artistically of very high quality and iconographically very interesting. The newly published study on T'oros of Taron's art by T. Mathews and A. Sanjian will serve as a model for the proper study of individual Armenian manuscripts and artists. 

Crimea, Vaspurakan, Julfa

fter the thirteenth century, Armenian miniature painting flourishes simultaneously in a variety of regions each with a characteristic style.  In the Crimea, where a large Armenian colony had gradually migrated after the fall of the Bagratid kingdom in the eleventh century, miniature painting was strongly influenced by the Byzantine classicizing style, with emphasis on naturalism. In Van/Vaspurakan, an opposing style became traditional, one naive in its outlook, probably of native Armenian inspiration, Figures with very round faces and large eyes with dark pupils were usually drawn against the white of the parchment or paper. The iconography of the Van school often departs from the standard, displaying at times echoes of an ancient tradition and at times an imaginatively original interpretation of the text. At the end of the sixteenth century, a talented school of miniaturists developed at Julfa on the Arax, a rich merchant city whose adventurous traders established Armenian commerce from Amsterdam and Venice to Aleppo and India.  After the city's destruction by Shah Abas in 1604 and the forced migration of its inhabitants to the newly created suburb -- New Julfa -- of his capital Isfahan, artists from old Julfa with the Julfa style continued to flourish throughout much of the seventeenth century. 

Seventeenth Century and After

n the seventeenth century, in Constantinople, the Crimea, New Julfa and other centers, there was a conscious revival of the elegant Cilician style of miniature painting. Leading artists understood that painting had greatly declined in the fifteenth and especially sixteenth centuries and consciously copied miniatures from the best Cilician Gospels available to them.  Manuscript production continued in Armenia even into the late eighteenth century, even though Armenian book printing had begun in the early sixteenth.  The copying of Gospel manuscripts practically stopped, however, after the first printing of the Armenian Bible in Amsterdam in 1666. 

The influence of western artistic tastes became evident after the sixteenth century with the increased involvement of Armenians in international trade.  Interest in European painting grew among the wealthy in such Armenian centers as Constantinople and Isfahan-Julfa; Armenian artists began painting on panel and canvas.  Armenian art began to include an ever increasing quantity of larger framed paintings, consequently, the art of the miniaturist declined, despite sporadic production throughout the eighteenth century.


Courtesy of  Dr. Dickran Kouymjian 
"The Arts of Armenia". Copyright  © Dr. Dickran Kouymjian 
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon 1992. 
Web site: www.csufresno.edu/ArmenianStudies

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