Syunik (Gladzor) and Tatev Miniature Painting Schools

Syunik (Gladzor) Miniature Painting School: Momik

In XIII-XIV centuries Gladzor and Tatev monasteries located in Syunik province played a major role in the history of the Armenian culture. As both monasteries were situated in Syunik therefore when talking about Gladzor and Tatev schools it is conventional to allude to them together. Both schools have a big role in the Armenian miniature painting. However the schools have their similarities and differences.

The most famous representatives of Gladzor School are Momik and Toros Taronatsi. The birthday of Momik is unknown; it is counted by allegedly going back 25 years from his first work that was the miniatures of Gospel dated 1292.

Momik’s name was first mentioned in 1283, in a manuscript written in Gladzor university where there is writing on the altar: «Please remember me, the painter of the altar».

He was the artist-architect of Orbelyan princely family and at their instruction he was designing and building up churches and painting the Gospels. It is assumed that he began his work as a painter and architect in Cilicia; in 1283 he painted a Gospel at the order of the queen Kera and became famous.

Then he spent the rest of his life in Vayots Dzor. As to the sculptural works; it is precisely defined that the cross-stone (khachkar) in Noravank dated 1308, the portrait of mother and child in the Areni church (1321), the illustrations of the Virgin Mary and the God the Father of the church parish have been done by him.

The parishes of Noravank church, Areni church, two-storey shrine-church of prince Burtel in Noravank also are famous architectural structures; he is the author of the churches Zorats in Yeghegis and St. Grigor in Tatev.

Some researchers believe that Momik considered himself mainly an architect and a sculptor referring to the record book dated 1302 where Momik remembered the cold winter; hence one may assume from the record book that he was engaged in miniature work only in winter when the construction was stopped and the hammers of the builders were kept silent. 

In either event as a miniature artist Momik’s works have been quiet studied especially in the context of Gladzor miniature school, but his architectural and sculptural works are not fundamentally studied and are awaiting their explorer. 

We have the four Gospels painted by Momik, the three of which are signed and the fourth is without a signature and is ascribed to him due to obvious stylistic similarities.  The manuscripts painted by him are the Gospels dating back to 1292, 1302 (or Stepanos Orbelyan), and 1283 (unsigned), collections of 1283-84.

Momik’s manuscripts refer to the early period of his activities. At the request of priest brothers Hovhannes and Thaddeus, the Gospel copied and painted by him was written in 1292 in the St. Gevorg church of Uro Kar settlement near the Qarkop monastery. The manuscript is kept in Matenadaran (manuscript number 2848).  It is written on a parchment and fortunately the record book is holistic. In the record book the writer-manuscript painter calls himself an «infirm secretary by the name of Momik», who painted on the parchment «lines and pictures». 

The information that Momik has left about his teacher is also very important: «Please remember my kind teacher celibate priest Hovasap». The remarkable thing is that in the same 1292 at the request of Gladzor University headteacher Yesayi, Hovasap copied a manuscript.  There is a gravestone of Hovasap in Noravank with 1324 written on it. 

As an earliest complete work the Gospel Book of Noravank gives some guidance on Momik’s art. There are no graphic details in the Gospel Book: it includes images of Evangelists, miniatures and head ornaments, compact color palette: red, blue and green and yellow. Gold is applied limited. Momik enchants the viewer mainly with the simplicity of artistic means, consonant and bright color palettes. Miniature painters are different for their monumentalism, harmony of colors, clearness of decorations, massiveness of images and distinctiveness of portraits.

In the miniatures «Putting Christ into a Coffin» and «the Advent of the Angel to Women» that are included in the «Armenian Miniature Painting» book (authors: L.A. Durnovo R.D. Drambyan) Momik presents himself as a master artist who masters the art of grouping and expresses the greatness of the situation through emotional and powerful characters and their movements. One may see and feel the effect of Cilicia on the color palette although it is less dainty in Momik’s works.

The Gospel Book dated 1302 Nº 6792

In 1302 at the request of Stepanos Orbelyan, metropolitan of Syunick region, he painted a valuable book whose author was Hovhannes Orbelyan.  The book consisted of 300 pages and the prominent historiographer always had it himself when travelling.   

It was even often taken to the battlefield as they believed that it gave them the victory. Unfortunately the place of writing is not mentioned in the main record book of the historiographer-writer. Although most probably it is Noravank, as both the writer and the miniature artist lived in Noravank.

The manuscript is a real masterpiece of handwriting art with its unusual small size, pictorial uniqueness of manuscripts and high art; 12 narrative manuscripts and 3 images, 2 title pages, 8 very small head ornaments and a number of miniature pictures on the marginal of the manuscript in the 12 times 8,7 size pages. 

At the beginning of the manuscript Momik placed the main events of the Gospel; by portraying them in the following sequence with an amazing artistry; Annunciation of the Lord,  Birth, Candlemas Day (Tyarndarach), Transfiguration, Entry into Jerusalem, Washing of the Feet, Crucifixion,  Lamentation, Rise, Ascension, Feast of Pentecost.

The images of evangelists have also been preserved. Despite the unusual small sizes of the book the painter was able to reproduce the images with canonical integrity. In the miniature painting “Ascension” he harmoniously fitted 17 figures and 18 figures in the “Entry into Jerusalem” scene with expressive inspired characters.

Momik is one of the greatest artists of portrait art in the Armenian miniature painting. The portraits created by Momik are statuesque and the characters are emotional. Dramatic effect is typical to his miniature pictures; especially to his portraits and human figures, they are not completely lost in the architectural background of heavy and dark colors, and are emphasized in an extremely realistic environment.

The harmonious application of gold in the color palette provides the true magnificence of the scenes. Momik never repeated himself; every time we encounter a different version of Virgin Mary in different manuscripts. In the Gospel Book painted at the request of Stepanos Orbelyan Virgin Mother is a young woman with deep eyes, gentle looks and graceful stance.

The various stories of the Gospel book provide the further odyssey of the manuscript. In 1406 a scribe restored and sold the manuscript, it was passed from hand to hand, and in 1676 when it was resold again, a high price was paid for it: 1 cow, 1 bull, 1 buffalo and 1 carpet.

Interesting biographical information was reserved in the records dated 1331, where Momik tells about losing his sight and by little it was returning thanks to God and his belief towards Jesus Christ. After losing his sight and restoring it sometime later Momik was no longer engaged in miniature painting.

Stepanos Taronatci

Gospel Book of 1318

It is known that Toros Taronatsi is from the city of Mush, for which he was sometimes called Mshetsi. His birth year is unknown, but there is information that he was born in a priest’s family. He studied at Gladzor and his teacher was Yesayi Nchetsi. He has copied and painted 19 manuscripts, 9 of which are kept in Matenadaran. His first manuscript known to us is “Gospel Book of Yesayi Nchetsi” (1307, St. Ghazar monastery of Venice, manuscript 1907) that was studied by S. Ter-Nersisyan. He was engaged in these activities for 40 years.

The last time his name appeared in 1346 in the collection painted by him. One of the best works of Taronatsi are the illustrations of the Gospel Book dated 1318 that are 11 thematic miniatures, 4 portraits of evangelists and ornaments in almost every page.

The margin ornaments are mainly floral. The captions are various. The composition structure of the sheets is monumental. The manuscript consists of six vestry rooms, each two are symmetric.

Despite several Byzantine miniature painting principles, the ancient national traditions have a firm place in the art of Toros Taronatsi. One may notice the use of folk art. The narrative style is simple almost always with proportional silhouette. Toros Taronatsi portrayed the Virgin Mary and the child, Prophet David playing the musical instruement, medieval thinker Yesayi Nchetsi with a special vitality (through introducing domestic motives).

The clothes of the characters, designed forms, gothic elements of the Gospel Book dated 1318 prove that the Armenian miniature painting has taken many elements from the cultures of other countries. Despite the circumstance the manuscript is unique both in the works of Tarnoatsi and Armenian miniature painting.

The achievement of Cilician Armenia and Greater Hayk are peculiarly interwined at Gladzor School.  Here they have preserved also elements of pagan art.  For example, the picture of the tree of life that can be seen in the works of Toros Taronatsi.  His color patterns are unique expressed in blue, red and sometimes in golden palettes.

Green was often chosen as a background for the pictures. In the works of Taronatsi, in the vestry rooms and margins one may see snakes and dragons fighting against each other and killed by a sacred soldier.  In the Gospel Book dated 1318 and 1323 one may see the specific style of Taronatsi. 

The Gospel Book dated 1323. Nº 6289

The Gospel Book is illustrated very sumptuously. Especially dazzling are the vestry rooms that shine with gold. Different creatures are portrayed there; St George killing the dragon, the ambush eagle chasing the partridge, the angel blinding the demon, parrots, ostriches, crocodiles, owls and so on.

The title pages are no less interesting in terms of their content and wonderful design.  In the center of the upper part of the title page of the Gospel book is sitting the Blessed Virgin and feeding the baby, the so called wet-nurse Blessed Virgin protected by two angels.  At the bottom in the green branches there is a mother deer and next to her cubs is the father which with his presence seems to remind that Christ did not have earthly father. 

The big capital letter that consists of the symbols of four evangelists ends with a wreath of gospel wisdom; the young Christ sitting just as he is usually depicted studying in the temple.  The lateral ornament ends with an eagle; with the symbol evangelist Hovhan.  Here everything is related to one another mainly by pursuing dogmatic goals. 

The dividing ornaments are luxurious.  Most of them are mythical birds sometimes with a hat on that remind Palaeologue costumes.  The thematic miniatures of Taronatsi are distinctly weak.  It seems as if they have been implemented as a duty, they leave a dull and tedious impression, and the bright and colorful color palette not conforming to the content enhances the impression.

Syunik miniature school indeed has its own unique place in the history of Armenian miniature painting. In the name of Momik and Toros Taronatsi the Armenian manuscript art has talented and versatile artists who have left a part of them both in the pages of the Gospel Book and in the cross stones, in sculptures and even in some churches. 

Tatev Miniature Painting School

Grogor Tatevatsi

Tatev monastery does not lose its cultural significance in XIII-XIV centuries and remains one of the scientific and educational centers after it. Famous scientists who were also public figures had leading roles in the prominent monastery. Renowned philosopher Grigor Tatevatsi who was also an artist was one of them.

In 1390 settling in Tatev Tatevatsi gathered around himself students from Syunik and different parts of Armenia and continued his scientific-pedagogical activities. Within his headteacher years Tatev School that was turned into a university reached its peak of prosperity by becoming spiritual centre of science, culture and art.

Tatevatsi has written interpretations, conclusions, sermons, and theological, denominational and philosophical valuable works. The author’s pedagogical views, issues of cognition and knowledge were touched upon in those works.

The most important are the works called “Book of Inquiry” and “Voskeporik” that include information not only about the science and different life related issues but also the century-long achievements of the Armenian denominational mind. A number of musical, ritual, theoretical and aesthetic issues are discussed in the “Book of Inquiry”. Part of his heritage are the interpretations of works of Aristotle and David Anhaght. 

“Qarozgirq” is also unique in its kind with volumes of “Dzmeran (In Winter)” and “Amran (In Summer)”.  He has created sermon and rhetoric art works textbook.  In philosophy Tatevatsi was defending the principle of the truth of divinity and nature, distinguished between faith and science, theology and philosophy. 

The Gospel Book dated 1297 Nº 7482

At the end of XIV century Grigor Tatevatsi painted a Gospel Book written in 1297. He does not have many miniature paintings but confirm the talent of the painter. An exceptional peculiar color palette based on dark brown and blue shades, and bright red and yellow, reminds the Targmanchats Gospel Book of 1232 to some extent. The writing style is distinguished by monumentality and some high proportion and profundity.

The decorating details emphasize the aspiration of the master to depict real events of monumental character. The colors are selected with a good taste. Noteworthy are the faces of people that are depicted in very fine lines and who seem to be alive through the natural redness of cheeks.

Of course the manuscript cannot be considered as the first work of Tatev painting school, as long ago both the writing classes and painting workshops were existing there. The contribution of the latter is reflected in the paintings of Grigor Tatevatsi and thus somehow characterizes Tatev School.

Gospel Book of XIV-XV centuries Nº 6305

The miniatures of the manuscript created in Tatev School do not have a precise date, but based on the fact that they include features of several artistic forms of the previous period, it must be attributed to the end of XIV century or beginning of XV century. The name of the painter is Grigor.

Preserving the monumentality of the writing style the painter fills the background and some details with delicate ornaments that makes the whole surface look like flickering pattern the forms and the colors of which correspond to the content of the miniature. In this regard the miniature of Annunciation Day is particularly remarkable, in which the archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin are loftily sitting on the cloud like pink background from which stands apart gracefully the pomegranate tree with ripe fruit. Particularly expressive are the graceful figure of surprised Mary and the swift movement of the archangel.

Other miniatures also draw attention for the vividness of movements and especially the expressiveness of faces with large movable eyes, delicate features and red cheeks. The lace ornaments sculptured on the stone girdle the architectural parts. The fabrics are decorated with flowering latticed ornaments. Especially remarkable is the marginal ornament of the letterhead. It is a huge bouquet made of almost absolutely real flowers put in a gorgeous vase. Though the color shades differ from the ones used by Grigor Tatevatsi but their painting contrast is quite defined. Very similar are the depicting of the faces with dark and red colors and with the typical redness of the cheeks.

Grigor is the immediate successor of the style of Tatevatsi when it comes to filling in the flatness of the pictures with ornaments. The talented painter of the manuscript has received artistic education indeed, but some features of his work; monumentalism, the ability to express the emotional part of the content and decoration link him to the folk style of art, just as his prominent predecessor and apparently the Tatev school were linked and the same cannot be said about the Gladzor School.

Sources:, Translated my Anna Movsisyan.

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