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The Critical Corner - 06/27/2005

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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.

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