Most Armenian manuscript books have been stolen and destroyed. The miraculously surviving samples of handwritten treasures are carefully preserved. The largest collection of manuscripts is kept in the Matenadaran repository of ancient manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia.
About 10 thousand of the surviving 25 thousand manuscripts are illustrated, of which 5-7 thousand are full miniatures. The Gospels were illustrated the most often, followed by the Bible, Sharakans (collections of hymns), and Chashotsy (collections of lectures). The manuscripts have been published in the scriptoria of churches called “grchatuns”.
The earliest illustrated Gospels date to the 5th century. These illustrated manuscripts were created during the first translation of the Gospel into Armenian.
The “Etchmiadzin Gospel” of 989 features 4 unique miniatures, which are considered valuable examples of early Christian art. They were created in the Noravank monastery of Syunik province.
Left – “The Gospel of Queen Mlke”, 9th century. Right – “Echmiadzin Gospel”, 989.
The base material for early manuscripts was parchment – animal skin processed in a special way. Later, wood-free paper of surprisingly good quality appeared.
Here is a description of a medieval method of making parchment:
“Take the skin of a kid [young goat], domestic or wild ram, foal, hare, roe deer, or calf. Take lime, sift well, and pour water on it. If the skin is thin, make the solution thin; if thick, make it thick. When the solution is ready, remove the hair, rinse cleanly, and pour fresh lime water; when the skin becomes tight, it will stretch; wash and stretch with a rope on the machine.
Battle of Avarayr, 15th-century miniature
Take a knife and scrape off the meat side until you have scraped off all the meat – this is the writing side. Rinse off the water and expose the skin to the sun for drying, and then scrape the side of the hair dry. Starch the parchment with egg white. Keep white flaxseed in water for three days until it becomes thick like honey, then use it to starch the meat side and then scrape it off with a knife. “
Left – Gospel of Zakare, 1470. Right – Manuscript, 1287.
The Armenian parchment was thin, soft, light, polished on both sides, and held the paint well. There also was a “velvety” kind of parchment with very fine “pores”.
Left – Grigor Narekatsi, 1173. Right – David Anhakht, 1280 manuscript.
The very process of creating an Armenian medieval manuscript was laborious and painstaking. Scribes, illustrators, gilders, binders, and jewelers would work on the manuscripts. Paints and inks were made by the craftsmen themselves and were applied with goose pens and reed sticks that worked like “self-writing” pens. One manuscript says that “Deacon Hovhannes wrote 900 letters, having refilled ink just once.”
Left – Gospel, 1232. Right – Gospel of Mughni.
For centuries, the manuscripts have been kept in humid monastery rooms and hidden in unexpected places. Despite this, they have retained all the brightness of their colors.
Left – Manuscript, 14th century. Right – Miniature by Hakob Jughaetsi, 1610.
Here are some of the secrets of making paints:
“On rubbing gilding. Take as much good gilding as you want and take good liquid honey or white glue or a thick solution of gum, pour the gilding into a large porcelain dish to the brim, stir well with your finger to combine them into powder, pour water and let it sit, strain the honey water, and collect what leaves with the water. Then dry and use with a fine brush as usual.”
Left – Miniature from the Gospel of Prince Vasak, 1232. Right – Miniature of Ghazar Baberdtsi, 1619.
And here’s a recipe for silver:
“Take ten drams (3.2 grams of pure tin) and one and a half drams of copper and mercury. Melt them separately, pour them onto the copper, and there will be silver.”
In the painting of Armenian miniatures, the red paint “karmin” (Vordan Karmir) has been widely used. It was extracted from the Ararat cochineal (an insect species). The highlight of this paint was that it perfectly preserved its bright saturated purple color.
Armenian cochineal, female.
We should also mention that all paints were exclusively natural. The parchment was sewn into a “notebook” and dressed in wooden plates covered with leather or velvet fabric. Then, the book was placed in a frame made of ivory, silver, and gold. The books themselves were kept in leather or cloth cases.
Left – Miniature of Sargis Pitsak, 1331. Right – Miniature of Toros Roslin, 1262.
The cases were richly inlaid with precious and semiprecious stones, gems, and colored glass and were decorated with filigree and embossing.
It must be said that several schools have been distinguished in the Armenian miniature – the schools of Gladzor, Tatev, Artsakh-Utik, Vaspurakan, Cilicia, and Crimea. Each of these schools had their own outstanding miniaturists.
Left – Miniature by Toros Roslin, 1266. Right – Portrait of Grigor Tatevatsi, 1449.
Armenian miniature and book art reached its peak in the 13th century in Cilicia. An outstanding representative of the Cilician school was Toros Roslin. The repository of ancient manuscripts in Matenadaran contains two Gospels decorated by his hand.
Works of Toros Roslin – Ascension of Jesus (left), Mark the Evangelist (right).