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The Four Gospels in Armenian

Image from the Four Gospels in Armenian

The Four Gospels in Armenian
British Library Add. MS 19727, f.240
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

This impressive 310-page manuscript was written in 1166 by an Armenian monk called Simeon. It’s a masterpiece of calligraphy using the distinctive letter forms of the Armenian alphabet, which celebrated the 1600th anniversary of its invention in 2005.

What’s a gospel?

A gospel tells the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew preaching in Israel under Roman occupation. After his crucifixion around 49 AD and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning ‘the anointed one’ - developed his teachings into the Christian faith, a new religion independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures.

Several gospels were written by Christ’s early followers, but only four were authorised for inclusion in the Bible by the Council of Nicaea in 325. These were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John.

What’s special about the Armenian Gospels?

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Many Armenians already practised the faith in the late third century, even before the conversion of the country at the start of the next century by St Gregory the Enlightener, so called because he brought the ‘light’ of Christianity to the Armenian people.

In the sixth century, a dispute over the earthly and divine natures of Christ led the Armenian Church to reject the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451. Together with the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, and the Syrian Church of South India, it formed a group of five churches known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

The autonomous church in Armenia became known as the Armenian Apostolic Church because two apostles, St Bartholomew and St Thaddeus, were regarded as its founders. Apostles were the first preachers sent out to spread the teachings of the Christian faith after the death of Christ.

In Armenian the sacred writings that make up the Bible are called ‘Astuadsashuntch’, which means ‘breath of God’. The name reflects the importance given to the chanting of the gospels during church worship. Until the beginning of the fifth century, Armenia had no written language of its own. Scriptures were written and used in Syriac in Persian Armenia, and in Greek in Byzantine Armenia.

How do we know who made this manuscript and when?

Answers to both questions are found in the Gospels’ colophons – the name given to notes added to a manuscript, usually at the end, that often provide details about the commission and making of the work. The first colophon reads, “Lord Jesus have mercy on the sinful Simeon, who wrote this Holy Gospel”. The second colophon notes that the manuscript was “written in the Armenian year 82”, equivalent to 1166 in the Western Calendar.

What does this page show?

This is the beginning of the Gospel of St John. The title is given beneath a panel filled with an interlacing pattern. Simeon, the scribe, uses red ink for the first lines of each gospel and chapter throughout the manuscript. The first letter of the word ‘Iskzbane’, meaning ‘In the beginning’, is elaborately extended to form a decorated initial ‘I’ that fills the whole height of the page.

The square panel to the left houses the numbers in Armenian letters of the readings from the Gospel made during the yearly cycle of church worship. The panel is topped by a stylised palm-leaf design. The absence of the eagle, St John’s traditional emblem, is an interesting iconographical peculiarity.

What language is it written in?

The text is in classical Armenian, written in the Armenian alphabet, which was invented in 405 by a priest called Mesrop Mashtots, who had abandoned a military career in favour of life as a monk. His intention was to construct an alphabet in which every sound of the spoken language was represented by its own letter. To avoid confusion, each of the 36 letters was to stand for only one sound. His alphabet is still used in Armenia.

With the invention of its own alphabet, an Armenian translation of the Bible soon followed. The first was made by St Sahak from an original text in Syriac. A generation later, between 433 and 436, this version was much improved by second translation based on a more accurate Greek text. The earliest surviving Armenian gospels date from the late ninth century.

The scribe, Simeon wrote this manuscript of the gospels in the Armenian script called ‘erkat’agir’ – meaning ‘letters of forged iron’. It was the standard script from the fifth to the 13th century. There were two forms: a rounded style and the angular, square style that Simeon uses here.

The erkat’agir script was gradually superseded by a rounded hand called ‘bolorgir’. This more cursive script had become the norm by 1488 when the manuscript of the lives of the saints shown below was written. The page includes a drawing of St Gregory the Enlightener.

What’s the history of the manuscript?

A fourth colophon asks the reader to “remember in Christ, Khassan and his wife… he acquired this Gospel in the year 890”. So the manuscript was in the possession of someone called Khassan in 1442 by the Western Calendar. Nothing is known of earlier or later owners until 1854, when the book was sold to the British Museum by William B. Barker on 7 January. It’s likely that Barker obtained the manuscript during his travels in Armenia in the previous years.

The British Museum Library was transferred to the British Library on its foundation in 1973.

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