Illuminations from an Armenian Gospel book

Before the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official state religion, Armenia did. Sometime around 286 an Armenian Christian man named Gregory (venerated in the Armenian Church as St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for his faith by King Tiridates III. In 301 Gregory succeeded in converting the king, and Tiridates in turn imposed Christianity on his people—the first monarch ever to do so. Armenia is thus the oldest Christian nation in the world.

In addition to khatchk’ars (large stone crosses erected as memorials), Armenia is known for its sophisticated manuscript illuminations. Although they bear Byzantine and Persian influences, many also demonstrate originality. Take, for example, the iconography of the Baptism of Christ.

Baptism of Christ (Armenia)

The Baptism of Christ, from an Armenian Gospel book (Ms. W.543), 1455. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

One unique feature of Armenian Baptism paintings is the depiction of Christ standing on a dragon. This is because the Armenian Church interprets Psalm 74:13 as a prediction of Christ’s baptism: “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters” (KJV). The following prayer, ascribed to Basil of Cappadocia, is recited in Armenian churches each year on the Feast of the Epiphany as part of the ritual blessing of the water of baptism:  

And there [at the Jordan stream] he beheld the dread dragon lurking in the water; opening its mouth; it was eager to swallow down mankind. . . . But thy only-begotten Son by his mighty power having trampled the waters under the soles of his feet, sorely punished the mighty brute; according to the prediction of the prophet, that thou hast bruised the head of the dragon upon the waters. (qtd. in Treasures from the Ark: 1700 Years of Armenian Christian Art, p. 71)

Another iconographic invention of Armenian artists is the representation in scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac of a ram hanging by his horns from a tree as opposed to standing on the ground caught in a bush. This is because the Armenian Bible, which was translated from the Greek Septuagint, translates the word κατέχω in Genesis 22:13 as “hanging” instead of “caught.” (The King James Version has: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.”) This translation choice was likely made to emphasize the typological link to the Crucifixion, in which Christ our sacrifice likewise hung on a tree.

Sacrifice of Isaac (Armenian)

The Sacrifice of Isaac, from an Armenian Gospel book (Ms. W.543), 1455. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The manuscript from which I took these two images has been fully digitized by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and is available for online viewing as either a Flickr album or a series of high-resolution downloads. Illuminated by a priest named Xač’atur in 1455, it contains twenty-six full-page miniatures, which I strongly encourage you to explore. They are absolutely beautiful, and I am struck by their uniqueness: they’re unlike any other images I’ve seen on these subjects.

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