Sunday, January 02, 2005

Armenian Illumination notes

The history of Armenian illumination depends a great deal on the history of Armenia itself. The Armenian alphabet was invented at roughly the same time as the entire country converted to Christianity- and it was the first country to convert as a nation. Illumination followed, and seems to be the high point of artistry in Armenian culture. There was some sculpture, but few other arts survived the centuries of instability- and illumination had the virtue of portability.

Due to the unstable nature of Armenia’s political climate through the ages, illumination only flourished in areas of tranquility. But what made it politically unstable, gave the illumination much richness and variety due to the juxtaposition of cultures and readily available rich materials. Armenia is located in Asia Minor, and both the Silk Road and various crusades traveled through it. It was also caught between the Byzantines, Persians and Mongol invaders. Artistic themes were borrowed heavily from Byzantium and Persia, and later from the Crusaders who brought French and other influences into the kingdom of Cilicia. Other influences are Hellenistic and even Chinese. Pigments were mined locally, or brought in via the Silk Road.

There are two main traditions of Armenian illumination: those commissioned by the priests themselves, and those commissioned by the rich (either nobility or merchants). The priests often lacked the funds for elaborate stuff, and these works were often gouache on paper and crudely executed, with little or no gold and a limited palate. The priests themselves occasionally painted them, with little or no training. The rich stuff was usually on vellum with lots of gold and a large brilliant palate with expensive pigments. Since the richer stuff is what people ooo and ahh over at Court and would prefer to receive, that is what I’ll focus my attention on.

The mostly highly prized and costly illuminated works were bound Gospels. These are bound in a unique fashion (for more description, see Treasures in Heaven) with intricate silver covered boards and end covers. The Gospels were never touched directly, but always held in a silk veil. The colophons at the end of the book usually described who created the book, who donated the book, and anything else of interest concerning the book- often including who rescued the book, either by ransom or by hiding and carrying to a safe place. These colophons always included requests to pray for their souls. These books were so treasured that it was felt that donating or rescuing a Gospel was like donating or rescuing a Church, and would ensure eternal salvation. The Gospels were opened with the Eusebian letter and then his canon tables. The letter explains how the canon tables are to be used for comparing similar passages in the four gospels. Then some Gospels included 4 to 16 pages of full page illustrations summarizing the life of Christ, although some books have this cycle before the canon tables. Next are the four gospels presented in order, usually with a full page portrait of the saint. The first page of the text is always lavishly illustrated with a cornice, illuminated main letter, and a tree of life on the right. Often, the animal symbolizing the saint is worked into the page- and these symbols are from Crusader influence (John-eagle, Matthew-angel, Mark-lion, Luke-ox). Often more marginal art, or half page illustrations break up the rest of the actual text, and usually, the first letters are enlarged. Finally, the colophons are added, with a portrait of the sponsor of the book. Sometimes the sponsor is added to the cycle pictures- taking part in the crucial scenes of the life of Christ. Queen Mareum, for example, is seen holding the clothes while the baby Jesus is washed after his birth. She appears in several pictures of the work she commissioned.

Given a choice, Armenian painters preferred to apply paint to the rough (hair) side of the vellum, to which pigments adhered more easily- this is why in luxury works, facing illustrations alternate with facing blank pages. They did little to prepare the vellum, but paper was sized before use. Ruled lines were created by pricking on the vellum near the outside edge and connecting the points with a stylus, or the vellum was dampened and pressed onto a ruling frame - a board with wires or strings attached. Pages were kept track by “numbering” the bottom of the pages- Armenians didn’t have a unique set of numbers, so they merely used corresponding letters. The illumination was first drawn, with a brown ink. Red bole (an earth based pigment) was applied before and under the larger areas of gold. The main pigments were white lead, vermilion, orpiment (yellow), natural ultramarine, red lake, and gold. Green was made by mixing orpiment with ultramarine, and this is why there is no whitework done on green, or yellowwork on blue. More organic pigments were added to the Armenian palette later but their use was rare before 1600. Egg yolk was the preferred binder for these pigments.

Gold was used in leaf for larger areas, and made into a paint for highlighting areas and fiddly bits like halos, just like in Byzantine art.

White lead is a traditional toxic pigment, and even Pliny gives a recipe for it.

Vermilion comes from cinnabar, and is an ancient pigment. Artificial vermilion was invented in China, and is found in Armenian illumination.

Orpiment is a mineral pigment mined in the Lake Van region of Armenia and elsewhere in Asia Minor. This bright lemony permanent yellow is no longer used because it’s poisonous.

Natural ultramarine is extracted from lapis lazuli, and is a medieval pigment mined in Afghanistan. This color, while expensive, is readily available in Armenia, and is always of the first quality.

Red lake is a magenta-red pigment prepared from the lac (secretion) of the laccifer or lacca, an insect of India and the Far East. Introduced by the Arabs and brought via the Silk Road, it is one of the most characteristic of Armenian colors. (Treasures in Heaven, 129)

In contrast, Byzantium pigments were usually organic, and less vibrant, although they used a much wider range of colors and pigments. Islamic art contains mostly mineral pigments, but they also use a wider range of pigments, including several natural greens like copper green and malachite. Islamic art also usually lacks gold and red lake.

The art itself was designed to be symbolic without set meanings for most symbols. The viewer was encouraged to meditate upon possible interpretations. While I am not learned enough in Byzantium, Persian and French illumination to tell you what elements came from which area, I can identify several common themes. The twisty vines and other geometric patterns are found in all three of their influencing lands. The elaborate trees of life usually appear on the first page of the actual gospels, but occasionally appear on the canon tables. Real trees are more common on the cannon tables. The triads are the most interesting decoration, in my opinion. They also appear in Russian illumination parallel to Armenian- and pre-dates extant examples in both cultures, as near as I can tell. The main difference is the lines of whitework or yellowwork in the triad. Triads appear as corner decoration, or in the center of labyrinth swirls, or integrated with a tree of life.

The order of painting (after the rough drawing with pale brown ink) seems to be red bole under the large areas of gold, and then the gold. Next comes red and blue, and these are the two main colors that cover everything. Then you add green, and green is either used alone, or on red to make it darker in some spots. Since green is a mixed color, it is not used a great deal in large areas. Then the yellow is used for some large areas, but usually just to accent the green and the red, in a manner similar to whitework, which I refer to as yellowwork. Yellow is never put on blue- because then it would be green. Then the whitework is added to the blue and red. Whitework is never put on green, and white and yellow never appear on the same patch of red. Then shell gold can be applied to richly accent some drawings- but this is not common, and usually replaces yellowwork in the piece.

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