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Armenian master-illustrator

03 May 2013

Nicholas Cranfield sees a display of vivid Gospel manuscripts

Armenian jewels: St Mark, fol. 101v by Mesrop of Xizan, who worked between 1608 and 1652.

Armenian jewels: St Mark, fol. 101v by Mesrop of Xizan, who worked between 1608 and 1652.

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 icons.

"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 

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