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Why we should read... `Cilician Armenian Miniature Painting - XII-XIII Centuries' by L A Azarian (300pp,16 Colour & 134 B/W illustrations, Yerevan, 1964) Armenian News Network / Groong June 27, 2005 By Eddie Arnavoudian Though certain of his methodological and aesthetic principles are debatable, Soviet era art historian L. R. Azarian's `Cilician Armenian Miniature Painting' makes very satisfying reading, and for the untutored amateur one can even say exciting reading. Those wishing to contest particular judgements and evaluations of his are free to enter the fray. But in an age of growing ignorance about ancient classical art, of which Armenian miniature painting is a part, the focus on the positive and the enlightening in this book is preferable and more useful. Examining some of the accomplishments of XII-XIIIth century Cilician Armenian art, Azarian argues that in it one can detect close connection to and significant continuity with the artistic traditions of historical Armenia itself. Cilician painting was significantly influenced by Byzantine and European art, the latter brought to the region by invading Crusaders. But, argues Azarian, it remains part of a uniquely national, Armenian artistic tradition. In the first instance Azarian establishes unity and continuity sociologically, noting that many early Cilician artists began their careers in historical Armenia before emigrating to Cilicia, along with tens of thousands of their compatriots, in the wake of the collapse of the Bagratouni Armenian royal dynasty. These artists brought with them the traditions they imbibed in their first home. They also used as their models manuscripts brought from historical Armenia. Thus some of the earliest surviving Cilician manuscripts reveal a technique and style that is native to historical Armenia: `monumental', `dense', and ` heavy' figures; a profusion of geometric designs and simple local colours. All these stand in sharp contrast to the more refined, lighter and gentle touch of later Cilician art. The earliest Cilician paintings, described now as belonging to the Trazarg school essentially reiterate the simpler, canonical and orthodox traditions of historical Armenia, with only hints here and there of any modification. Trazarg paintings are significant however for being a link that binds Cilician painting to an earlier Armenian artistic tradition. Developing his point Azarian argues that the decorative borders, backgrounds and the human forms of these early Cilician paintings derive from a much earlier classical Armenian sculpture, architecture and ornamentation that can be traced back to the 7th century. A close scrutiny of Cilician Armenian painting, Azarian suggests, shows that its decidedly secular features emerge within a pre-existing and preserved tradition traceable to historical Armenia. The Skevra School that followed became the first genuinely Cilician one represented by three painters - Vartan, Constantin and Grikor of Melij. Their work exhibits a finer, more realistic character. But even as they mark aesthetic advances they retain many features from the earlier Armenian tradition. Among the latter are the 3-headed leaves and half-sized date trees that are put together in a new and fresh harmony of colour and display. A 1173 manuscript of the great medieval Armenian poem Narek that was decorated by Grigor Melijetzi is revealing of a broadening breach with canonical tradition. Tradition permitted pictures only in canonical texts. Armenian literary, legal, medical, historical and other secular manuscripts contain no pictures. (Unfortunately Azarian offers no explanation of why this was the case) The 1173 manuscript was not such a text but contains four paintings, and not of Christ or his disciples but that of the author Krikor of Narek depicting him as four different persons - monk, philosopher, beseecher unto God, with the label of the last portrait illegible. Azarian's discussion of the Skevra school contains an instructive synopsis of aesthetic features of successive stages of Armenian painting. In the art of the earlier period born in historical Armenia the depiction of the human figure is static. Clothes crudely and shapelessly blanket the body concealing its contours and definition and thus denuding the images of both vitality and perspective. At its height Cilician art reveals a great realist refinement in the depictions of the human figure. There is here also a new richness and vitality in the use of colour that contrasts sharply with an overwhelming monotony of gold in earlier painting. Aesthetic development is also evident in the design and colouring of front pages, in decorative margins and the new flourish added to the altars. The third school of Cilician Armenian painting was known rather cumbersomely as `His Royal Highness's Brother Hovanness's' that builds on Skevra's realism to attain a greater `proportional representation of the human figure' and an accurate depiction of surroundings. Produced mainly in the monasteries of Akner, Grner and Bartzrapertz the manuscripts from this school show an expertise in the use of light and shade, a plasticity in depictions of movement - both of people and things - and a great diversity in the portrayal of individuals. In these paintings one can also note, Azarian argues, a greater freedom for artistic creativity and imagination, a real emancipation from the rigid representations of earlier schools. (p78-80) Cilician artistic schools were not however marked off from each other in any hard and fast manner and the Hromgla School that records the greatest artistic achievements carried over features both from historic Armenia and its Cilician predecessors. Flourishing from the 1250s onwards Hromgla artists attained even greater virtuosity in the depiction of the human form and of animal and plant life. Its edgings, front pieces and capitalised lettering were also marked by greater artistic ilan. Hromgla however is distinguished from its predecessors by more than just its artistic/technical exuberance. Paintings from this period are remarkable for the secularisation of Biblical themes and the development of psychological depth in the portrayal of individuals. Biblical themes are not abandoned. But they are not presented in traditional orthodox or canonical manner. Biblical stories continue to inspire the paintings, but frequently religious or Christian themes take a back seat. We are left with a rich secular realism and a profoundly developed individual characterisation. A striking example is the picture of Christ entering Jerusalem in a Bible now in the Washington Museum: `Here the (unknown) artist, contrary to tradition, did not include the apostles who accompanied Christ, nor the children who spread clothes at Christ's feet. Even more, the painter does not even paint... Jesus Christ. The entire scene depicts a group of... civilians... following a donkey whose hindlegs alone appear from within the city gates. In this miniature there is nothing left of what is the traditional ceremonial representation of Jesus Christ's entering Jerusalem.' (p103) Underlining the manner in which Biblical themes were secularised to reflect the spirit of the age are in addition scenes of dances, of naked female forms, of wild life in combat, of hunting and of images borrowed from popular theatre that feature in numerous other manuscripts. All these elements appear in Toros Roslin, the outstanding figure of Cilician Armenian miniature painting. He brings to perfection the technique, the craft and the execution of the Hromgla school and goes further in discarding canonical interpretations of Biblical themes. Much of Roslin's artistic virtue rests in the depiction of inner/psychological being and tension of his protagonists. These pictures, though they describe scenes of calm, reveal a dramatic intensity in their protagonists who exude dignity and pathos. This focus on inner individual drama significantly minimises and obscures the Biblical or religious message of the images. Azarian offers a convincing argument against attributing to Roslin many brilliant but unsigned paintings of the same era. stylistic differences between Roslin paintings and unsigned attributions are so distinctive that they suggest, Azarian argues, the beginnings of yet another and even more developed `Sis' school. In many unsigned manuscripts Azarian notes a further expansion of the secular and the presence of scenes of drama and tragedy that are absent in Roslin or appear only in individual faces and expressions. There are too, in these works, more portraits of Kings and other prominent personage who commissioned work. Bearing in mind the fact of the destruction of tens of thousands of manuscripts from this period, there is no reasonable ground to assume that Roslin would have been the only painter of outstanding talent. But as with much else in Armenian artistic, intellectual and cultural life, Cilician Armenian painting did not flourish to its full potential and was cut short by foreign invasions. By the XIV century the Armenian Cilician monarchy began to falter before repeated Egyptian onslaughts. Weakened by internecine conflict and the decline of its main ally, the Mongol Empire, it shrank through the century and finally collapsed in 1375. With it, art and culture also retreated. This age of decline left its mark on the work of the artist Bidzag. With its `screaming colours' and its `overused gold' it is, in Azarian's view, `lacking in dynamism' and shows no sign of going beyond earlier moulds. Thereafter commences a new emigration and Armenian artists and intellectuals join caravans taking them to new settlements in the Diaspora where they continued significant contribution. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.