Unraveling the Mysteries of Early Armenian Books

Florence Avakian
It was an evening of revealing finds in early Armenian religious books on Wednesday evening April 9, 2014, as Morgan Library and Museum art historian Dr. Sylvie Merian unearthed beautiful woodcut illustrations, modeled after 17th-century European prints. Many of these rare masterpieces are found in the book collection of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.
The Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Zohrab Center, introduced the speaker by relating that Dr. Merian is a top expert on Armenian book binding, as well as in codicology and manuscript illumination. The recent schedule of lectures at the Zohrab Center aims to cover the broad spectrum of Armenian civilization, he said.
Armenian bookmaking "began with the invention of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century," said Dr. Merian at the beginning of her multi-media presentation. Its impetus was the desire to write down sacred scripture in the Armenian language. Until the printing press was invented, texts were copied by hand, "letter by letter, word by word by highly trained scribes, and decorated by highly trained artists."
She gave an example of one of these scribes, Tserun, who left many colophons (an inscription at the end of a manuscript, very long and informative in the Armenian tradition). His manuscripts were made on paper created from linen rags (not wood pulp from trees) and could also have been made of parchment from specially-prepared animal skins, she explained.
"These hand-copied books continued to be produced for centuries until the advent of the printing press; in the Near East the technique continued well into the early 18th century and later."
As is well known, the printing press with movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg, and his famous Bible was printed around 1455 in Mainz, Germany. (The Morgan Library and Museum, located in Manhattan on Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets, always has one of  its three Gutenberg Bibles on display in its beautiful East Room.) This world-changing invention made the production of many copies of the same book possible in much less time, and cost much less than the price of a manuscript, she said.
The printing of Armenian books began in Europe because the technology was simply unavailability in the Near East. Additionally, printed books were looked upon with self-interested opposition from scribes, and with suspicion by Muslim rulers.
The first Armenian book was produced in Venice around 1512 by Hagop Meghabard (Hagop the Sinful) who printed five books of great interest to Armenian merchants or travelers. It was not until 50 years later that another Armenian book would be printed, by diplomat and cleric Abgar of Tokhat, who printed two works in 1564-65, then returned to Constantinople where he opened another short-lived printing press from 1567-69.

First Printed Armenian Bible
As it had at other points in Armenian history, the Bible played the key role in opening the Armenian community to something new: in this instance, to the revolution of printing technology.
After several unsuccessful attempts to produce printed Bibles in the Middle East, it became clear that the first printed Armenian Bible would have to be produced in Europe. A printing house was founded in Protestant Amsterdam in 1658 by Matteos Tsaretsi, who procured the necessary metal for casting the typeface, and also obtained 150 previously-used religious-themed woodblocks (illustrations gouged out of wood), produced by Christoffel van Sichem. Bishop Oskan Erevantsi followed Matteos after receiving funds from three wealthy Armenian merchants in New Julfa, Isfahan (in Iran), and printed the complete Bible in Armenian in 1666.
Over a hundred Christoffel van Sichem woodcuts were printed in the Armenian Bible, Dr. Merian noted via several slides, and his woodcuts were used in many other Armenian publications, as the woodcuts and blocks went eastward. On the journey, they became very popular and were copied into new woodcuts, manuscript illuminations, wall paintings, and silver covers for sacred books.
These woodblocks moved along with the printing houses and were used in several locations in Europe, even in Constantinople, until at least 1718.
"Another intriguing development was the use of Western European prints by Armenians as new sources for religious iconography in manuscript illumination in the 17th and 18th centuries. This new visual vocabulary was used for other woodcuts, as well as in wall paintings, silverwork, ceramic tiles, and even manuscript illumination," Dr. Merian said.
Constantinople would become the home of many Armenian printing presses and remained so until the early 20th century, the speaker added.
Following the engrossing lecture, a spirited question and answer session took place, after which many attendees crowded around Dr. Merian with even more queries.

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