MESROP worked in New Julfa
(Isfahan) from 1608 to 1652 as a teacher of theology, scribe, book
illustrator, and painter. At the end of the 16th century, Mesrop
had begun in one of the scriptoria around Lake Van. He was
among those forcibly moved to Isfahan once it became the new
capital of Shah Abbas.
Some 46 surviving
manuscripts of his have been identified by Mikayel Arakelyan (Books, 4
January), the largest single collection in Yerevan. They date
from 1604, when Mesrop was working in his native Xizan, and include
a total of 33 Gospel books, several menologia, and one History
of Alexander the Great.
They can be found in Vienna
and Venice, as well as in the libraries of Isfahan and Tbilisi. The
Bodleian Library, Oxford, and Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, hold
Gospels (of 1609 and 1615). Others are in the Getty Museum, Malibu,
and in St Petersburg. In Jerusalem, the Patriarchal Library of the
Armenian monastery of St James has a Gospel book of 1625/29.
The present exhibition, at
Sam Fogg, is arranged around a Gospel book, originally from the
Church of Surb Astucacin (the Holy Mother of God) in New Julfa.
Painted entirely in Mesrop's hand between 1618 and 1622 (AE
1067-71), it has no fewer than 23 full-page illuminations, and a
further 17 smaller miniatures.
There are more than 200
marginal illustrations, in one of which a heron seizes an
unsuspecting pink python by the neck (at folio 276r). Above the
crucifixion, a long-necked pelican feeds three chicks in a nest off
its breast (f.15v), and dancers and musicians cavort across the
title page of St Matthew's Gospel (f.13v).
The density of colour
saturation is remarkable: cadmium orange, cochineal, white from
Xinjian, ultramarine, viridian, cobalt, and olive green, as well as
gold from the Indian mines at Panna, flare off the page. Many of
the illuminations are protected by a layer of wax, which Mesrop
provided for each.
This richness gives a clue
to Mesrop's engaging mastery, with which three very distinct
cultures are combined. His native Armenian culture is blended with
Byzantine elements within the Persian Islamic non-figurative
decorative tradition. Concentric arches, palmettes, and domes
appear under triangular tympana with flourishes of arabesques and
lancet shapes. Only rarely did he make use of Western iconography,
which he knew from widely circulated engravings.
The first three Evangelists are each seated, writing at a
tablet, while St John stands, dictating his message to his young
scribe Prochorus. The iconography, established in Constantinople by
the mid-11th century, derives ultimately from the fifth-century
apocryphal Acts of the Apostle John. John stands in front
of a stylised cave mouth, presumably alluding to the rocky outcrop
of Patmos, here transformed into undulating bands of red, green,
and gold, topped with a dome (f.221v). God's Word comes from a
haloed cloud aloft, striking John on the lips.
The biblical scenes offer intimate details that are worth close
scrutiny. In the scene of the annunciation, a veiled chalice stands
between the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin (f.3v). In a smaller
instance later, the chalice signifies the altar before which Simeon
receives the boy Jesus into his arms (f.7v). The chalice re-
appears beneath the Holy Spirit in his conventional scene of
Pentecost (f.20r), beneath which is St Christopher. Janus-like
Christopher has two heads, one canine, one human; it was believed
that he came from a region of cynocephalous peoples.
Usually, the Twelve are individually represented with haloes
behind our Lord, for instance at The Raising of Lazarus
and at The Entry into Jerusalem; but at The
Footwashing (Peter's large foot is in a dish), all the golden
nimbuses have gone, as if each Apostle waits to have his head
wetted as well as Peter.
The Betrayal of Judas and The Denial of Peter
are paired, a compositional device that Mesrop apparently used
widely. In the upper frame, Judas, still with a halo, kneels before
his Master as he kisses his hand, an Eastern intimacy of respect.
Elsewhere, Mesrop does show Elizabeth reaching over to kiss the
Virgin on the cheek, but the gesture looks forced, and was not one
with which Mesrop was as familiar (f.4r).
Either side of Jesus are six soldiers, recognisably dressed as
Persian guards with conical helmets (kukullus), who begin
to tug at Jesus's robe. Of the Jews and Pharisees and the other
Apostles there is no sign.
In The Denial, Peter sits on one side, seemingly in
conversation with the two Marys, eyeing a proud cockerel on the
other, which is ready to crow his act of betrayal.
Besides this rich Gospel book (made accessible in Dr Arakelyan's
excellent catalogue), Sam Fogg is also showing other Armenian
treasures, including a processional cross dated from the years of
the Black Death (1347), and a rare icon of the Virgin and Child
from the cathedral treasury of Etchmiadzin, written in 1696 by the
court painter to King Vakhtang VI in Tiflis. Unlike the Greek and
Russian tradition, Armenian Christianity rarely made use of
"Mesrop of Xizan: An Armenian Master of the 17th Century" is
at Sam Fogg, 15D Clifford Street, London W1, until 10 May.
Phone 020 7534 2100. www.samfogg.com