Decorated Incipit Page; Mesrop of Khizan (Armenian, active 1605 - 1651); 1615; Tempera colors, gold paint, and gold leaf on glazed paper; Leaf: 23 × 17.1 cm (9 1/16 × 6 3/4 in.); Ms. Ludwig II 7 (83.MB.71), fol. 81; No Copyright - United States (

BELMONT / LOS ANGELES — The vibrant artistry and rich history of medieval Armenian manuscripts continue to retain the power to enthrall Armenians and non-Armenians alike, many centuries after their creation.

That seemed to be the theme of last week’s talk by Dr. Elizabeth Morrison of the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles, sponsored by the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), in Belmont.

Morrison is the senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty, and though her specialty is in early French and Flemish manuscripts, she is enthusiastic about sharing the art and history inherent in the Armenian manuscripts which reside in the museum.

The talk, which took place on February 15, was hosted by NAASR’s Marc Mamigonian along with Maggie Mangasarian Goschin of the Ararat-Eskijian Museum (LA) and NAASR’s new executive director, Silva Sedrakian.

After opening remarks by Goschin and Sedrakian, Mamigonian introduced the main speaker, Morrison.

Elizabeth Morrison, Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum

The Getty Collection

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The Getty Museum was formed from the art collection of oil magnate J. Paul Getty in accordance with a trust after his death. Getty primarily collected Greek and Roman antiquities and Renaissance European paintings, Morrison related. However, since the board of trustees desired to tell a more complete history of painting from Antiquity to the 19th century, the Ludwig collection was acquired in 1983. At the time, Peter and Irene Ludwig of Aachen, West Germany, had the best private manuscript collection in the world. These manuscripts were primarily from European sources though there were a few Armenian items as well.

Armenia is a part of the story of manuscript creation the world over, says Morrison, and although the Getty’s collection is mostly focused on European manuscripts, she has learned a great deal about Armenian history and culture in the process of coming to understand the artistry of the small but very valuable number of Armenian manuscripts which the museum possesses. She also noted that the museum has a few Ethiopian and Hebrew manuscripts, adding to their collections from Eastern cultures. Morrison stated that some of the top-notch Armenian scholars in the US, such as Sylvie Merian and Helen Evans, have helped her along the way, and particularly mentioned Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh who has done extensive work on the provenance of the lost pages from what are known as the Zeytun Gospels.

Without going into too much detail, the Zeytun Gospels, dating to the Cilician period, came into the possession of an Armenian family from Marash around the time of the Genocide. A family member removed some of the illuminated pages and kept them within the family in the Boston area for about 90 years, when they came to the attention of art historians and were purchased by the Getty Museum from the family. Later, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Church sued the museum for ownership, claiming the pages belonged to the Catholicosate of Cilicia. The museum agreed to acknowledge the Catholicosate’s ownership of the pages and the Catholicosate donated the pages back to the museum. (The original manuscript, minus these “lost pages” is in the Matenadaran in Yerevan, Armenia.)

Portrait of John the Evangelist, Mesrob of Khizan (Isfahan, 1615)

The manuscripts that the Getty has in its collection date from the 13th century to the 17th century. Morrison noted that Armenians in the Near East continued to create manuscripts in the 17th century and in some cases as late as the 18th century, at a time when Europe had shifted completely to printed books. (Manuscripts, being painstakingly hand-written and delicately hand-painted books, generally produced on parchment made from animal skin, served as the primary form of communication of the written word throughout the ancient and medieval period until the print revolution of the 15th century.)

The Armenian Michelangelo

The first examples that Morrison showed were a series of Canon Tables from the Zeytun Gospels (these were the famous “lost pages”). The original manuscript was created in 1256 in Hromkla, then the seat of the Catholicosate of All Armenians. The artist, Toros Roslin, is often referred to as “the Michelangelo of Armenia,” noted Morrison. Roslin is undoubtedly the most famous name in the history of Armenian manuscript art. The manuscript was created under the auspices of Catholicos Constantine I and apparently for his own use.

Morrison noted that Roslin’s artistry is “absolutely superb” and “every detail is thought out and executed.” The lush colors and exquisite designs of the illuminations are evident from the available images. The lecturer noted that to look at these in person, however, is a different experience. For one thing, the gold leaf which is heavily used in these creations reflects light differently from different angles, something that can’t be seen in a photograph. Morrison related how gold leaf, which is actual gold that is hammered extremely thin, can be hard to work with. Medieval scribes would actually wipe a brush across their forehead to pick up oil, and then pick up the pieces of gold leaf with the tip of the brush to put them in place. The areas where gold leaf was to be place had been painted with glue so that the gold would stick. This is why gold leaf was actually the first thing to be applied after the text, then came the painting.

Gospel books were the most commonly produced type of manuscript in Medieval Armenia, says Morrison, and often included a table of cross-references (known as Canon Tables), which existed not just as an index to the stories in each gospel, but to show that the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were interrelated and told the same story. Nevertheless, such an index was probably somewhat boring even to medieval monks, and so the artist Roslin created detailed illustrations to decorate these pages, combining static architectural elements with depictions of flora and fauna in designs that had “incredible vivacity and style,” in Morrison’s words. Oftentimes the illustrations on two facing pages are almost identical, yet the birds which are a part of the composition may be positioned differently, which gives the illusion of movement when one looks from page to page.

The Zeytun Gospels were created in the year 1256 at the castle of Hromkla, on the Euphrates River directly west of Urfa. Hromkla had been a possession of a European Crusader whose Armenian wife deeded it to the church after his demise. It became the seat of the Catholicos from 1149 to 1292. Morrison also noted that Toros Roslin likely derived his unusual last name (for an Armenian) to crusader influence, speculating that he may have had a European father. His works were studied by later Armenian manuscript painters for whom he became an icon.

Nativity of Christ, Mesrob of Khizan (Isfahan, 1615) – notice the dancing dogs

‘The Sinful Petros’

Morrison next showed a less extravagant manuscript from the 14th century, which was produced by a scribe named Petros in a region to the north of Lake Van. This manuscript was made on paper rather than parchment and features artwork that is nowhere near as lush as that of Toros Roslin, however it shows some interesting features. Morrison suggests that while only the wealthy could afford manuscripts, this one probably belonged to a family in the lower echelon of the upper class.

At the beginning of the manuscript, the Life of Christ is depicted in pictures, which are done in a bit of a primitive style. (The student of Armenian history will note that the Lake Van region had been bereft of Armenian rule for about 300 years at this point, and the area was not necessarily prospering due to trade, either.) The typical scenes such as the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection are shown, though there are some features of interest to scholars. The most interesting picture depicts Petros handing the quill and inkpot, tools of his trade, to his student. The image symbolically depicts the passing of the Armenian manuscript tradition from one generation to the next, in this case, both bearded and hooded vartabeds (celibate priests). Perhaps even more interesting, are the two other figures depicted below — younger students of Petros, not in clerical garb who are depicted in the process of paper-making. The arduous process of polishing with large glass cylinders was the final step in the manufacture of paper. Petros, who in traditional monastic humility refers to himself as “the Sinful Petros,” not only depicts his students and thanks them for their service, but even gives them haloes!

The next manuscript, also a gospel book, was done by an artist named Ghukas in the 16th century. Again made of paper and done in a simple style, the illustrations in this manuscript are also of great interest. One page depicts figures ascending from hell into heaven in an iconographic image known as “the way to eternal life.” Demons are shown attempting to ensnare the good souls with hooks and drag them to the mouth of a dragon, representing hell, however angels that are on guard are shown battling off these demons with swords to ensure the safe ascent to heaven. Ghukas also shows the very human side of the manuscript artists; in his annotations he thanks the friend who brought him lunch during the process, and urges the reader not to blame him for the rough quality of the paper used in the book!

The student of Armenian history may be tempted to observe that quality in the art of manuscripts declined in times and places when Armenian communities were overrun by outside forces; thus the Van region in the 14th century, and pretty much everywhere in the 16th century, were not great times and places for the Armenian people, until they were able to gain dominance in trade in other places. 17th-century Persia was one of those places.

Self-portrait of the scribe Petros with students (Lake Van region, 1386)

Armenian Art Flourishes in Iran

As is well known, the large and prosperous Persian-Armenian community is often dated to the deportations of Armenians from the homeland by Shah Abbas in 1604, the destruction of Julfa in the Nakhichevan region, and the construction of New Julfa adjacent to Isfahan. Subsequent to this, Armenians became dominant in the economy and trade of the Safavid Persian Empire. It would seem to be no surprise that the arts also got a boost from this newfound prosperity, shown by the last piece in Morrison’s presentation, an Isfahan gospel book from 1615.

The artist, Mesrob of Khizan, was evidently a native of that region just south of Lake Van and adjacent to Bitlis. His vibrant, beautiful illustrations have their own unique style in the tradition of what is often referred to as the Vaspurakan school. However, in Mesrop’s case, an even more vibrant color palette seems to have been made possible by the availability of different pigments in the Isfahan area.

One of the most striking images in all of Armenian manuscript art was created by Mesrob of Khizan for the frontispiece of the Gospel of John. John is depicted with rays of light from God entering his mouth, giving him the Word of God. He simultaneously directs his assistant to transcribe the words of the gospel. This image was chosen for the cover of the art book released for the Armenia exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2018.

Mesrob’s art is in vivid colors and uplifting. The artist’s sense of joy is emphasized in such small details like the shepherd in the Nativity scene playing a flute – causing his dogs to dance!

The illustration pages from the Isfahan Gospel had also been removed and had been purchased from different sources. Morrison believes that the noted scholar Jacques de Morgan, head of Egyptian Antiquities for the French (and author of a well-known, but probably outdated “History of the Armenian People”), who also did archaeological research in Persia and Syria, likely acquired the Isfahan Gospel and brought it back to Paris, where someone later in the chain of possession removed the pages.

A question-and-answer session followed the presentation. Morrison shared that she is responsible for manuscript acquisition at the Getty, and the museum’s goal is to represent as well as they can the history of manuscripts across the medieval world, which includes Armenia. She mentioned that not all manuscripts can be displayed all the time as they are always subject to damage and fading from exposure to light, and they also have to think about the bindings of the books as well, all of which are historic.


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