The Art of Manuscript Illumination in Artsakh

The Art of Manuscript Illumination in Artsakh

Prince Vakhtang on a throne at young age, depicted in a compilation of different Books from the New Testament, 13th century.
The “Haghpat Gospel” copied and illuminated in 1211 in the region of Ani and in its traditions, later kept in Artsakh.

All manuscript images are courtesy of at the Mashtots Matenadaran - Institute of Ancient Manuscripts 

12th –13th centuries stand out in the cultural life of Artsakh. This was a period when crafts flourished, many monasteries and churches were built and architecture reached previously unimaginable heights. It is not surprising that Artsakh became a centre of Armenian manuscript art in these centuries and around thirty manuscript producing centres operated there, Gandzasar being the most famous of them. In the following centuries that art developed even further.

The scriptoria at Artsakh monasteries were not only manuscript producing centres. Interestingly, quite a few famous manuscripts from other Armenian provinces were brought to this secure stronghold for safe-keeping. Additionally, the Princes of Artsakh paid large sums to foreign invaders for ransom of several famous manuscripts and brought them to their land.

Kirakos Gandzaketsi (Kirakos of Gandzak), a 13th century Armenian historian writes: “There were countless treasures of big and small Godly Books: foreigners had looted them and sold these valuable volumes to the Christians in their army for meager prices. And they [the Christians] bought them happily and distributed them to the churches and monasteries of different districts” (Ganzaketsi, History of Armenians, Ch. 34). The historian mentions a few names, including Grigor of Khachen, among manuscript preservationists.

A page from the Gospel of Mets Shen, written in 909.
An illuminated page from the Gospel of 1040, from the Tsor village. 
A page from the manuscript produced at Gandzasar in 1212, known by Vakhtang  Khachentsi (Vakhtang of Khachen), depicting Mary with infant Jesus, archangel  Gabriel and two Evangelists.

It is due to safe-keeping in Artsakh that several very old and luxurious manuscripts have survived until today. They include the Gospel of Mets Shen, copied in 909; the Gospel of the village of Tsor of Dizak (now Hadrut region), copied in 1040; the Gospel of “Begyunts” of the 9th century, a Gospel copied in Hromkla (Cilicia) in 1166.

The Gospel called “Haghpati” (of Haghpat), copied in the region of Ani and in the Ani tradition in 1211 and a Gospel illustrated by Grigor the Illuminator in 1232 (called Targmanchats since it was deposited at the Targmanchats Monastery of Artsakh) were also kept in Artsakh.

As for manuscripts produced in Artsakh, merely as a way of introduction, the following should be mentioned. 

The famous manuscript produced at Gandzasar in 1212 and known as the Gospel of Vakhtang Khachentsi of Artsakh (of Vakhtang of Khachen) or as Vakhtang-Tangik, is the earliest illuminated manuscript from the region of Artsakh-Utik that has survived until today. It has artfully illustrated Canon Tables, the pictures of the four Evangelists, as well as several miniatures depicting the Lord, scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity and Ascension. The name of the illuminator, Toros, is also well-known.

A title page of St. John’s Gospel. The miniature depicts the Ascension, four angels taking Jesus to the Heavens.
Canon Tables

Pages from the manuscript of Vakhtang Khachentsi.

Jesus Christ sitting on a high chair, in the beginning of the Epistle to Romans, in the compilation commissioned by Vakhtang, 13th century.
The Apostle Paul holding the Scripture in one hand and making the sign of faith with the other in the same manuscript, 13th century.

The art critic Hravard Hakobyan writes of the characteristic features and artistic merits of the manuscripts produced in Artsakh: “These manuscripts mainly depict Canon Tables, titles pages, portraits of the Evangelists and rich marginal illuminations done at a high professional level. The rich and vibrant palette contributes to the majestic impression left by the title pages and Canon Tables, still retaining the traces of architectural features. The velvety green and chestnut-brown colours are dominant, while being rendered pleasant with vividness and softness by the gleaming hues of blue and violet, brightened by white. The reflections of gold make them look nobler. It is worth mentioning that the general architectural-monumental character of the Tables and title pages, as well as the proportional arrangement of floral and geographic ornamental features connect these manuscripts well with the artistic system of other monuments of art of Artsakh and Syunik”. (H. Hakobyan, The Medieval Art of Artsakh, Yerevan 1991, p. 33, in Armenian).

Meeting of the Lord, Mary, Jesus and the elder Simeon.
Last Supper.

Scenes from the 13th-14th century Gospel from Artsakh kept in the Matenadaran.

The Slaughter of the Innocents. King Herod, instructing the massacre is depicted in the upper right corner. An inscription near the beheaded children on the left says “infants of Bethlehem”. A Gospel copied in 1447, renovated and rebound in the 18th century. 
The Flight to Egypt, Joseph leading Mary who holds baby Jesus, a topic not frequent in Armenian manuscript illumination.
Washing of the Feet.
The Baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist, with angels and the Holy Spirit.

Scenes from the same Gospel of 1447.

The13-15cc.  Gospel was renovated and rebound in the 14th, 17th and 18th centuries and has had several private owners.

Experts point to certain similarities of style between the Gospels from which pages are pictured above and below, all judged to be from the 13th-14th centuries, produced if not by the same people, at least in the same traditions. 

The title page for Gospel of Luke.
Jesus entering Jerusalem.
Meeting the Lord.
The Baptism of Jesus.
This Gospel was illuminated by Ovannes and Toros, copied in the 13th-15th centuries. Its illuminations are mostly of the same themes as the previous two manuscripts and show commonalities in style as well.

The miniature depicting The Baptism of Jesus is very similar to that on the previous row, with the main differences being that crowds watching the ceremony are absent from the previous picture as is the Right of God while the Holy Spirit holds a more distinguishable vessel for the Holy oil. 

The miniature depicting the Meeting of the Lord is similar to that in the Gospel pictured to rows above.  

Text provided by Vardan Devrikyan.