On Saturday, the Armenian Apostolic Church commemorate the four evangelists, the writers of the four books of the Gospel: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. As we have discussed previously, the Bible is the ultimate textual source for all Christians. If this is true for the entire Bible, then it is especially true for the Gospels, the Good News of the redemption of the world through the Birth, Teaching, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is only in the Gospels that we have the direct words of Jesus Christ, Himself the Word of God. In the so-called “Red Letter Edition Bibles,” this is rendered dramatically by printing all the direct quotations from Jesus in a red font. There is a powerful reinforcement of the word of God (one of the Armenian words for the Bible translates to “the Breath of God”) by the Word of God Himself. Only in the Gospels do we have this forceful overlap between Jesus Christ’s presence in the world as the Word of God and the written words inspired by God that tells about the earthly ministry of the Word of God. Good news, indeed!
In keeping with the newer focus in “Back to the Sources” on single sources from the incredible collection of the Zohrab Information Center, this week we will take celebration of the four Holy Evangelists as an occasion to discuss the so-called Gladzor Gospel, held in the collection of the University of California, Los Angeles. This beautiful Gospel manuscript is the subject of an entire book, Armenian Gospel Iconography: The Tradition of the Glajor Gospel, by Thomas F. Matthews and Avedis K. Sanjian. Through this detailed book and the beautiful Gladzor Gospel itself, we have the opportunity to briefly introduce the tradition of Armenian manuscript production and of Armenian illuminated manuscripts. While we will have the opportunity to explore this topic further and in more detail, the careful exposition of a single manuscript by Matthews and Sanjian is a wonderful introduction.
The so-called Gladzor Gospel takes its name from the monastery where it was produced, the famed Monastery of Gladzor, once called “the glorious second Athens.” Although it is a little misleading to call it a “university,” this comparison has been made because of the extensive curriculum at the monastic school, especially under the direction of the Vartabed Esayi Nchetsi. Under Nchetsi, whose students took the style of Gladzor’s education to other monastic centers like Datev, Biblical commentary or exegesis was stressed. According to Matthews and Sanjian, we should “view the work of the illuminators as a kind of continuance of the work of the exegetes” (2). In other words, “manuscript illumination is not an entertainment art but a thoughtful and learned work which must be understood as part of the intellectual history of a people” (2). This means that the study of manuscript and the art contained in manuscripts is not only a form of art history, but a way of engaging with the Word of God and of furthering our understanding of the Armenian Christian faith.
|Armenian Gospel Iconography: The Tradition of the Glajor Gospel||According to its authors, “the first monographic study of a single Armenian manuscript,” this book offers a detailed exploration of the so-called Gladzor Gospel: its history, context, and the beautiful art contained within it.|
|Miniature Painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia||By pioneering Armenologist Sirarpie Der Nersessian, this two-volume book is the definitive study of manuscript art of the manuscripts produced in Armenian Cilicia. While a different iconographic tradition from the Gladzor Gospel, the book is another wonderful place to begin a detailed study of Armenian manuscript art.|
|A Catalogue of Medieval Armenian Manuscripts in the United States||For those truly interested in the art of Armenian manuscripts, even though many have been digitized, nothing beats seeing the actual manuscripts. This catalogue, compiled by Avedis K. Sanjian, attempts to be a definitive list of Armenian manuscripts held in the United States. No matter where you are in the Diocese, chances are there is a beautiful illuminated Armenian manuscript near you!|
Produced at the Monastery of Gladzor, we know that it was intended for the personal use of the renowned abbot and teacher Esayi Nchetsi. So the Gladzor Gospel must have been produced early in the fourteenth century. Through colophons, statements of information usually written at the ends of manuscripts, we know that this beautiful manuscript eventually passed into the hands of Baroness Vaxax, a member of the prominent Orbelian family, the main noble family in the region of Siunik in the 13th-15th centuries. From there, it was taken to the monastery of Geghard before being brought to New Julfa, the prominent Armenian merchant community outside of Isfahan, Iran. Dr. Caro O. Minasian, from that community, donated it to UCLA in 1968. So, this single manuscript is connected to some of the most important people and places in Armenian Christian history!
Yet, as the authors note, it is not merely the Gospel manuscript’s history that makes it so important. The connection to Gladzor, the exegetical work done there, and the fact that it is part of a small but important iconographic tradition, all make the Gospel worth the full-length book treatment it is given. Armenian manuscripts, hand-written books, were produced in monasteries for centuries. Talented artists painted pictures in some of these manuscripts, especially in Gospel Books—manuscripts containing only the Four Gospels—and Bibles. The art of illustrating manuscripts is called manuscript illumination, and some of the most celebrated figures in Armenian art history were manuscript illuminators like Toros Roslin, working in Cilicia. The main illuminator for the Gladzor Gospel was Toros Taronetsi.
Part of what makes the Gladzor Gospel so interesting is its place in a particular iconographic tradition. When manuscript illuminators produce their paintings, they tend to follow earlier examples. Over time, this produces a chain of influences known as an iconographic tradition. For example, in the portrait of St. Matthew above, located before the text of the Gospel of Matthew in the manuscript, certain details characterize the way St. Matthew is depicted: his writing instrument, for instance, tends to be a common way to identify him. However, if we compare this portrait produced in Siunik in the 1300s with, say, an illumination by one of the artists working in the Monastery of Skevra in Cilicia in the 1200s, while the writing instrument and basic pose of St. Matthew is the same, we can see certain differences in content and style, the most immediately noticeable difference being the presence of an angel in the Cilician manuscript.
Yet other details like the architectural background are also different. When these details are copied over time and in different manuscripts, they form an iconographic tradition. The imagery in the Gladzor Gospel was modeled on an eleventh century manuscript known as the “Vehapar Gospel.” As the authors note, “the survival of both prototype and copy has offered a unique opportunity for studying the development of an important tradition of Armenian iconography. The tradition represented by these two manuscripts is by no means the only iconographic tradition in Armenia, not did it have a very wide circulation. Yet the tradition has a certain coherence and logic, and its motifs are found to appear and reappear intermittently through the history of Armenian art” (3).
Armenian manuscript illuminators were most often monks and residents in Armenian monasteries. We know from writings of Gregory of Datev that at the Monastery of Datev, about a century after the Gladzor Gospel was produced, that students were grouped into “areas of instruction,” specifically music, painting, and commentary and translation. Given the Monastery of Datev’s connection to Gladzor, it is reasonable to assume something similar occurred at Gladzor. For our purposes, what this means is that those who illuminated manuscripts received a monastic education. They had some basic understanding of theology and exegesis, even if their specialization was artistic. As Matthews and Sanjian note, manuscript illumination should be seen as a continuation of exegesis, of the commentary on scripture. Not merely beautiful, these manuscript illuminations becomes sources of theological speculation, thought, and argument in their own right. They are a powerful testament to the message of the Gospel, and the witness penned by each of the four evangelists!
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You can find the entire Gladzor Gospel, digitized, here, courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles.