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Illuminated manuscripts

If khachkars are the symbol of Armenia, the painting of illuminated manuscripts is undoubtedly Armenia's other great contribution to the world of art. The beauty and skill represented in the many surviving examples are rarely equalled and seldom surpassed in other cultures. Extensive sets of pictures were used to illustrate manuscripts of the books of the Bible and obviously books such as Genesis or Exodus, where there is plenty of physical action, lent themselves particularly to this art form, with some manuscripts having up to 750 illustrations. The most elaborate manuscripts tended to be those of the four Gospels which were frequently bound with sumptuous covers of ivory or metalwork. A characteristic feature of these copies of the Gospels is the set of canon tables which were designed to show which passages of the individual Gospels were in agreement with any of the other three. They were arranged with columns of figures under decorative arches, often highly elaborated and usually accompanied by scenes or symbols of the evangelists. Before the Gospel itself there is a picture of the evangelists, again within an architectural structure and also with writing desk, lectern and writing implements.

The purpose of these books was to aid worship. They were made to be displayed on the altar as well as to be used by the priest reading to the congregation. A very few examples survive which pre-date the Arab conquest in 640. The subsequent repression of Christianity by the Muslims led to the suspension of artistic activity until after the end of Arab occupation in the 9th century. From then the art flourished. The importance of manuscripts to the Armenian Church is comparable to that afforded to icons by the Orthodox Church. The large number that has survived testifies to how valuable they were considered to be and how closely they were guarded in times of war. Manuscripts, particularly those believed to be endowed with miraculous powers, were given special names such as Saviour of All or Resurrector of the Dead. The manuscripts were also thought of as pledges for the salvation of the donors, as treasures in heaven, and they are therefore rarely anonymous productions. The names of the sponsor and the creators are carefully recorded so that they might be recalled by those who used the manuscripts. Given the importance of manuscripts and their beauty, it is unfortunate that the only place in Armenia where manuscripts can readily be seen is the Matenadaran ('Manuscript library') in Yerevan where a handful are on display in the two exhibition rooms.

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