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Art and Artifice in Armenian Manuscript Illustration

This warrants further study, she urges.

Although gold remains the paramount medium of pictorial illumination, the incomparable Desert Fathers is noted for the conspicuous use of white in the pictorial style, a reflection perhaps of the symbolic importance of the color “in the context of monastic spirituality.”

The manuscript was written at a time of divergent political upheavals and instability. The medium of spotless and pure representation in white is perhaps meant to reflect a poignant quest for salvation in those troubled times.

The data Stone collected from apocryphal texts has allowed her to propose a new approach in the study of illustration and iconogrpahic reading of gospel or other biblical images that are enriched with new elements, Leyloyan-Yekmalyan observes.

“Through the light cast by apocryphal texts, she was able to show the legitimacy and deeper symbolic meaning of unusual figures and other elements that previously had been misunderstood or simply ignored,” she adds.

In her lifelong quest, Stone has had occasion to visit the sites of many of the mosaics uncovered in the Holy Land, and her analysis of these sites, particularly Shellal, near Gaza, come at a particularly opportune time with the recent announcement of the discovery of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church near Jerusalem containing what Antiquities Authority sources describe as “some stunning” mosaics.

She notes that significantly, animals portrayed in the mosaics she has studied, like the one in Musrara outside the walls of the Old City, are illustrated in a most naturalistic way.

(One exception is the 6th Century medallion close to the Musrara site, crafted by Yevsdat or Eustathius the priest, which did not contain any human or animal illustrations, but rows of text, perfectly preserved).

Stone dwells at length on the relationship between text and illustration. Some illustrations, such as those in various sorts of Psalters, are tied to the text that stands at their side and in fact themselves form part of that text.

Sometimes the illustration are taken out the text itself and set in the margin. In one especially powerful rendering of Jonah and the whale in the royal manuscript called King Hetoum II’s Lectionary copied in 1286, the great fish is shown vomiting its victim with such force that it is expelled outside the frame encompassing the sea, and encroaching onto the colophon, clear out of the text, as pioneer Armenian art historian Sirarpie der Nercessian points out in her definitive work, ”Armenian Art.” The frame that was a barrier was broken in order to create a sense of movement and drama.

Some of the paintings in the manuscripts are also characterized by simplicity both of style and iconography.

”In spite of the wealth of color there is no attempt at naturalism, even a stylized naturalism. There is no attempt to convey depth or perception although this is typical of Armenian manuscript painting from earlier periods,” she writes.

But the simplicity of execution and style contrast with the richness of these paintings.

The Desert Fathers’ paintings reveal both eastern and western influence, as seen in the faces of the figures which are elongated, the hair fair and sometimes even the eyes light.

Stone’s discoveries, revelations and insights have enriched our knowledge, appreciation and connection with the national treasures of the Armenian people, an accomplishment rare in scholarship.

Her passing is an incalculable loss for Armenology, but her name and efforts remain enshrined in Armenian culture as a witness of that people’s unique, creative identity. And Armenian scholarship is comforted by the thought that her husband, Michael Stone, will be there to continue the work.


The Armenian Mirror-Spectator

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