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Awag Vank' Gospels

Inventively decorated with peacocks, this set of tables - a supplement to the Four Gospels - helped Bible readers in 13th-century Armenia. It enabled them to find parallel passages in different Gospels, and so compare and contrast the various accounts.

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Awag Vank’ Gospels

The Awag Vank' Gospels, Armenia, 1200-2. Canon tables 5-6 (left), and 7-10 (right)
BL Or. MS 13654, ff. 5v-6
Copyright © The British Library Board

Listen to curator Dr Vrej Nersessian on this text

What is a gospel?

A gospel recounts the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, which form the foundations of the Christian faith. He lived in Israel during the Roman occupation of the country. His mission to reform what he saw as corruption in the Jewish faith caused conflict with the religious hierarchy and led to his execution by the Roman authorities. After his death and subsequent reports of his rising from the dead, followers of Christ - meaning 'the anointed one' - developed his teachings into a new faith, independent of Judaism but keeping much of its scriptures.

Several gospels had been written by disciples of Jesus during the centuries following his death, but only four were authorised by the Council of Nicaea in 325 for inclusion in the Christian Bible. These four were attributed to St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John, known as the four Evangelists.

What is a Canon Table?

The Eusebian Canon tables seen on the pages above were a kind of concordance, which enabled readers to locate parallel passages in different Gospels. The columns identify passages common to two Gospel accounts, except the one on the far right: this last table identifies passages that occur in only one Gospel.

What makes this copy of the Gospels special?

This copy of the Four Gospels is the most important Armenian manuscript in the Library's collection. It is lavishly illuminated, as demonstrated by the rich and inventive decoration of these tables, including trees and plants, and peacocks and partridges.

It was commissioned for the monastery of Awag Vank', near Erzindjan (modern Erznka) in Armenia, and created there. Like so many manuscripts from Armenia, these Gospels have had a chequered life. An inscription in the manuscript dated 1605 comments on the persecution of Christians, noting that '...we have been destroyed from the foundations, and we have fled and come to the metropolis Constantinople, and we have brought this wonderful Gospel with us'.

When did Christianity reach Armenia?

Christian communities have probably been active in Armenia - which lies to the east of Turkey - since 40AD, and the country was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301. Christianity still plays a large part in the country's life and culture, though it is now constitutionally secular.

What alphabet is used in this manuscript?

The text in the Awag Vank' Gospels is written in the distinctive curvilinear shapes of the Armenian alphabet, devised in 405 by the Armenian monk Mesrop Mashtots (whose name appears below, written in Armenian script).
Mesrop Mashtots written in Armenian The invention of the alphabet was the beginning of Armenian literature, and has helped to reinforce both religious and national unity through Armenia's turbulent history.