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Illustrated manuscripts light up a distant time Heavenly illumination from Armenia

August 28, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The greatest of all Armenian illustrators was T'oros Roslin. His "Gospels of T'oros the Priest" (1262), also from the Walters, "is the most densely illustrated of [Roslin's seven] signed works and one of the most innovative in its illuminations," according to Mathews. And Wieck calls this manuscript "the best example of the classical style," with its "attenuated, elegant figures, beautiful wet drapery style, subtle coloring and wonderful gestures." Such characteristics are evident in T'oros' illustration of the "Presentation" from the Walters manuscript.

The period of the Cilician kingdom overlapped a 13th- to 15th-century period of Georgian, Turkish and Mongol rule in the Armenian homeland. From this period, the exhibit includes the 14th-century "Gladzor Gospels" (1300-1307) from the monastery of Gladzor, which has no fewer than 55 narrative miniatures depicting the life of Christ by five different artists. And because the book has been taken out of its binding for conservation, 38 of its leaves will be shown separately.

If the Cilician kingdom was Western-influenced, the Armenian homeland was influenced by the East, as shown in another Walters manuscript, the "Gospels from Khizan" (1455), illuminated by the priest Khach'atur. In the rendition of the

"Holy Women at the Tomb," the angel toward the bottom of the scene wears contemporary, Islamic-influenced trousers and boots.

"Booted figures in loose-fitting trousers reappear throughout the manuscript," writes Mathews. "In the Nativity, even the Virgin is wearing culottes and boots." Elsewhere, "Details like the slanted eyes of the evangelists, the overall patterning of the pages, and the turbaned figures of the guests at the Wedding Feast at Cana and of Pilate are indicative of the influence of Islamic art on Khach'atur who worked in a time when Armenia was under Islamic domination."

In the final period of the show, the 15th to 18th centuries, Armenia was divided between the Ottoman empire in the West and the Safavid empire in the East. Major influences of the period came from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople and the Safavid capital of Isfahan.

Long figures and bright colors are among the characteristics of the Isfahan style, as in Mesrop of Khizan's 1615 "Gospels," with its illustration of St. John encircled by a bright yellow, undulating line. The more Western-oriented Constantinople style can be seen in the metal bindings of some of the period's manuscripts. One of the silver covers of a 17th-century hymnal from Kayseri (or Caesarea) has a depiction of "Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace" taken directly from a woodcut in a Bible printed in Amsterdam in 1666.

But why were Armenian illuminated manuscripts still being made in the 17th century, long after the invention of printing?

"The middle ages lasted 300 years longer in Armenia than in the West," says Wieck. "The Turkish overlords would not allow people to have printing presses, so they had to continue to produce [books] by hand in these medieval traditions."

That hard work was fortunate, for it gave the world three more centuries of Armenian manuscripts.

ART SHOW

What: "Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Oct. 23

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, students and 18 and under free

$ Call: (410) 547-9000

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