An Armenian manuscript peculiar with its abundance of playful dragon figures

An Armenian manuscript peculiar with its abundance of playful dragon figures

The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, located in Minnesota, has recently released digitalized pages of an Armenian manuscript that showcases a variety of decorative initials and border images. This manuscript, which is both handwritten and illustrated, is accompanied by an engraving and utilizes the graceful Armenian Notrgir script, also known as “minuscule.” Originally invented for speed, this script was extensively used in the Armenian diaspora from the 16th to the 18th centuries and later gained popularity in printing. The manuscript contains a brief commentary on the Parables of the Gospels, initially composed in Etchmiadzin in 1780 CE.
Despite its relatively late 18th-century date, when printed books were about to replace hand-written and illustrated manuscripts, this book represents a beautiful example of the art form. The manuscript was digitized in 2009 and is currently in the permanent collection of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, formerly owned by the Shirinoglu family. It is entitled “On Divine Likeness” (“Գիրք որ կոչի աստուածանմանութիւ”), authored by Aghamalean, Petros Nakhichevantsʻi (1720-1787). According to the colophon, the name of the scribe is Tovmas. The manuscript was bound in leather with a gilded cross on the front and rear cover, with the rear flyleaf from an earlier erkatagir manuscript.
Nevertheless, the manuscript’s aesthetic value and charm lie in the extensive number of dragon figures, either forming the decorative initials with their intertwined bodies or portrayed in the beak of the stork, which represents holiness and vigilance in Christian symbolism or as marginals unlocking the critical messages of the text. On one of the pages, the initial letter is formed with the holy lamb, bearing the flag, as the common symbol of Christ’s victory over death, representing him as both suffering and triumphant. It is standing on the twisted bodies of dragons instead of the typical iconographic element- the mountain. All the dragon motifs are executed grotesquely, emphasizing the linear depiction. Their playful character and scaled elongated bodies resemble the style of the dragons often depicted in the Baptism of Christ scene in the miniature paintings of Vaspurakan school, which flourished from the 14th to 17th centuries.
It is worth noting that the dragon motif has been an ambiguous symbol with a wide array of meanings in Armenian culture. In the pagan Armenian visual arts, dragons were associated with the worship of water. The distinctive Armenian carved slabs known as “dragon stones” were testimonies to that idea. However, in Christian culture, dragons and dragon-like composite creatures in Armenian manuscripts and relief sculptures were transformed into an embodiment of evil paganism, conquered by Christ. Within this context, the Lectionary of 1286 (Lectionary of Hethum II, Yerevan, Matenadaran MS 979) is an exception, as the “heavenly dogs,” “phoenix,” and “dragon” motifs on its pages, inspired by Chinese art, had an apotropaic function, flanking the image of Christ Emanuel.
In conclusion, the 18th-century Armenian manuscript stands out for its abundance of dragon motifs as independent decorative elements that continue the tradition of vivid executions of the Vaspurakan school.

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