QUEEN KERAN GETS BACK HER ROYAL TRAIN
From Arthur Hagopian
Jerusalem, Nov 27 - Queen Keran has regained her royal train and her glory.
The first time I saw her, I could not even bring myself to touch her with my own hands. She looked so ineffably fragile and sacrosanct, I was terrified I would be committing a sacrilege. I could only gaze at her in wonder - an 800 year old masterpiece I had been one of the privileged few to have seen or examined close up.
The Queen Keran gospel, a 1272 manuscript, illustrated by the most celebrated medieval Armenian artist, Toros Roslin.
(I had returned to Jerusalem as consultant on a movie project planning a 3D IMAX film on the city, and the first port of call was the Armenian Patriarchate of St James).
Ensconced within the confines of the Patriarchate, its location undisclosed, the incomparable work of art bears vivid testimony to the greatness of the art of Armenian manuscript illustration during what experts call its golden age.
But for over a century, the queen had lain forlorn, ravished by rapacious hands that had ripped off two of its illuminated pages, representing a portrait of the evangelist St Mark and the Ascension.
The loss had been incalculable, degrading what is considered one of the most valuable holy objects in the art treasures of the Armenian Patriarchate.
Not any more.
The two "prodigal sons"are back where they belong, a magnanimous boon granted the Armenians by Greek shipping magnate, Thanassis Martinos who had acquired them from Dutch antiquities collector Michel Van Rijn, from the latter's icons and east Christian works of art.
In a statement issued here, the Patriarchate revealed that the train of events leading to the repatriation of the missing pages began in May this year when Timothy Bolton, Medieval manuscript expert at Sotheby's London, contacted the Dr Vrej Nersessian, Curator in charge of the Christian Middle East section in the British Library for expert opinion on the provenance of the two miniatures.
"Having investigated the matter and provided the required documentation of proof of the unlawful removal of the leaves from the Queen Keran Gospels, Mr. Thanassis Martinos graciously agreed to return the miniatures as gift to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem," the handover facilitated by Nersessian.
For years, the Patriarchate's Grand Sacristan, Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, has cherished a dream of reproducing the gospel in facsimile, he confided to me. He realizes that an exact facsimile will be an expensive exercise, but he is comforted by the expectation of intense demand from particularly from discerning collectors, including museums and libraries.
And now that the Queen Keran Gospel is whole again, interest in the acquisition of a facsimile will undoubtedly increase.
Experts note that the technology is certainly available in such a highly advanced IT location as Israel, but believe costs might be lower abroad.
The 1272 manuscript is considered the most elegant produced during the Mediaeval ages. It contains, in addition to canon tables and richly decorated headpieces, thirteen full-page miniatures illustrating the main events in the life of Christ and a hundred and three marginal miniatures.
Scholars note that the most remarkable aspect of the manuscript is the inclusion of portrays of members of the royal family, Queen Keran, her husband, King Levon III and their five children, since these illustrations cast a light on the fashion of the royal court of the age.
The Gospel was commissioned by Queen Keran for her husband and future king Levon of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. It was copied by the scribe Avetis in the capital city of Sis in 1272 and illustrated by Roslin. The manuscript was bound in Jerusalem in gold repousse work by the monks of the St James Brotherhood. The front cover represents the Crucifixion, and the back the Virgin and Child; on the claps are the four Evangelists.
The integral part of ancient Armenian manuscripts is the colophon, and these can be exhilaratingly inspiring or revealing.
"I have saved from captivity this precious garden, this fragrant orchard, this pure and shining book in memory of myself and of my parents, my wife, and my
children," reads one such entry.¬
In the dedicatory picture the Queen is represented on one of the final leaves, together with her husband King Levon III and their five children kneeling in front of picture of Christ enthroned flanked by Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
In the long colophon where all the members of the royal family are mentioned, the scribe Avetis writes that when he had completed the copy of the manuscript, the Queen "gave it to a man skilled and honored in the art of the scribes, in order to adorn it."
That man has been identified as Toros Roslin.
Nersessian notes that manuscripts were regarded with a deep sense of veneration in the Medieval Ages which accounts for "the abundance of various kinds of warning with respect to the proper handling of manuscripts, as well as anathemas against those who violated these injunctions."
"The scribes beseech the owners of the manuscripts, whether individuals or ecclesiastical institutions, not to regard manuscripts as sellable merchandize or an object that can be mortgaged," he points out.
"They placed a moral obligation on future generations to recover manuscripts carried off as booty, by ransom or other means. Captured manuscripts were never referred to as booty, but rather, like human beings, they were either carried off into captivity or they were rescued or purchased from captivity."
Nersessian quotes an example of this kind of injunction in a Gospel manuscript copied by a scribe, Kostandin Vahkatsi, in 1413:
"Let no one remove it from this place, let no one hand it over to an infidel...
Let them put it in safekeeping in a fort, or take it to the island of Cyprus, and when the danger has passed, bring it back to this place and receive their fitting reward."¬
Another scribe, Avag, showers curses in a 1337 colophon on anyone who would "dare to steal this holy Gospel, or tear off pages from it, or remove it from the great church . . . may he share the fate of Cain, Judas and the crucifiers and inherit the doleful maledictions."
While another colophon dated 1410 threatens that whoever "approaches this holy book with a sword or a knife and cuts off folios from this book, may the flaming sword cut off his loins."
But whoever ripped off those two pages from the Queen Keran gospel some 100 years ago, apparently had not heard of the curses of the manuscripts.
Pix caption: Roslin's depiction of the evangelist St Mark