The Art of Book Illustration and Miniatures



Unknown Artist, The Annunciation, Gospel 15th c., Khizan?

MS 5511, 1b, size 27 x 17

"Vaspourakan, one of the fifteen provinces of historical Armenia, has been of major consequence in the cultural and political history of the Armenian people".* Below is a brief account of important historical milestones that can be considered to have changed the cultural and religious atmosphere of Vaspourakan, creating the avenue for the discovery of excellence in book illustration and miniature art.  Until today, we have many original works dating back centuries that were created by the artists of the Vaspourakan area.  Read about each individual artist here.  The Album is coming soon.

Quick Access Topics


nHistorical Sketch & the Re-Birth of Art, Architecture, & Literature

nThe Set Back of the Re-Birth

nTurkish Invasion & Ruin

nSurvival After Turkish Invasion

nThe Start of Vaspourakan Miniature, Book Illustration, & Scripture

nThe Influence of Akhtamar

nThe Arts of Vaspourakan

nThe Vaspourakan Style

nThe Elements of Vaspourakan Art



Vaspourakan, one of the fifteen provinces of historical Armenia, has been of major consequence in the cultural and political history of the Armenian people.  Sprawled around the north-eastern and southern shores of Lake Van and its contiguous areas, the province formed, in days gone by, the core of the Urartu state.  It was the starting point for the onslaughts of Urartu sovereigns who extended their sway over the plateau, on the crossroad between East and West, which, since the close of the VII-VI centuries B.C., parallel to the process of the formation of the Armenian nation, has been recognized by its neighbors as the land of the


Artist Vardan, The Resurrection, The Ascension, Gospel, 1319, Artskeh, MS 7456, 8a, size 32.5 x 23.5

Armenians.  Vaspourakan outlived the ages (until World War I) achieving prominence as a cradle of original traditions in all domains of Armenian culture literature, music, architecture, scripture, and miniature.  At the turn of the fourth century, Christianity was adopted in Armenia as the country's state religion.  Monasteries were set up in Vaspourakan as elsewhere in the country; they ran schools which began training clergymen for the newly founded Christian church.  Teaching in those schools was conducted in Greek and Syriac.

In 406, Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian writing and laid thereby a solid foundation for written Armenian.  Together with his pupils he translated from Greek and Syriac the Old and New Testaments, treatises on theology and religious service and numerous historiographic and philosophical writings.  The fifth century witnessed a genuine rise of Armenian literature and other provinces of culture, and Vaspourakan was destined to make a significant contribution to such cultural advancement.z

However, that period of Armenian cultural flourishment coincided with the time of feudal fragmentation, class and interclass clashes and antagonism, incessant wars and battles against foreign enemies which eventuated in the downfall of the ruling Arshakouny dynasty.  Two powerful neighbors of Armenia the Byzantine Empire and Sassanid Persia partitioned the country extending their political sway all over the Armenian Plateau.  Vaspourakan came under Persian domination which alternate with Arab rule in the seventh century.  The following two centuries are known in Armenian history as a period of widespread liberation struggle of the Armenian people against Arab domination.  The Armenian population of Vaspourakan was in the forefront of that struggle.


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Historical Sketch & the Re-Birth of Art, Architecture, and Literature

In Armenia, as elsewhere in the countries subjugated by the Arab Caliphate, that patriotic campaign was crowned with success during the second half of the ninth century.  In 886, the Armenian Bagratouny princes succeeded in restoring the country's independence in Central Armenia.  The Armenian princes of Syunik and Afgan followed the example of the Bagratounies and in 908 Vaspourakan also achieved independence with Gaguik Artsrouny as Armenian king of Vaspourakan.  That period of independence which lasted for over a century was significant in the economic life and cultural development of the country.  The kings of Vaspourakan took to extensive construction: magnificent fortresses and citadels were built in addition to


Artist Kirakos, The Baptism of Christ, the Presentation of Christ, Gospel, 1330, Ournkar, MS 2929, 6b, size 32 x 23.5

royal structures, monasteries and churches.  On the Island of Akhtamar, which at the time was the royal residence of the Artsrouny dynasty, a royal palace and the church Sourp Khach (St. Cross) were erected during 918-921.  The palace was ruined and subsequently submerged (a detailed description of a contemporary historian has reached us), which the church is erect to date.  One can barely come across a monument in the medieval Christian East which could parallel that splendid church in architectural design.  Along with biblical scenery, architect Manuel has engraved the bas-reliefs of his contemporaries, workaday and hunting scenes, etc. on the walls of the church.

Historiography, scriptural art and book illustration also made headway1 .  Literature likewise recorded great progress.  Grigor Narekatsi, a poet of genius, and a native of the province, lived and created in Vaspourakan.  In the words of Mezhelaytis: "He is an exceptionally interesting poet of philosophical disposition in the world of literature".  Narekatsi's "A Book of Lamentation" rid Armenian poetry of its scholastic restraint and directed it along the road to humanism, paving the way for the growth of Armenian literature.

Naturally, Armenian culture would have scaled new heights has the favorable conditions persisted.  However, historical events took an unhappy turn.


1. A number of 9-11th cc. manuscripts, elaborately illuminated and scribed in Vaspourakan, have reached us.  They are the manuscriptal fragments of "Sermons" by Kyuregh of Jerusalem (MS 10100, Madenataran), The Gospel of Queen Mlke (862, MS 1144/86, Venice), The Gospel of Narek Monastery (1096 MS 10434) etc.


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The Setback of the Re-Birth

From the onset of the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire undertook fervent diplomatic activities aimed at conquering new lands in the East.  Unable to withstand Byzantine pressure, some Armenian and Gregorian princes had to hand their provinces over to the Empire.  The Armenian Kingdom of Vaspourakan also fell victim to that political gamble.  In 1021, King Senekerim of Vaspourakan quit his land together with the nobility and part of the population to settle down in Sebastia (Asia Minor), under Byzantine rule.


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Turkish Invasion & Ruin

Some time later, Vaspourakan succumbed to the invasions of Turkish-Seljuk hordes.  In the sixties of the eleventh century, the Seljuks exercised complete authority over Armenia.  The Seljuk reign in Armenia is known as a period of total decimation, emigration of the population in masse, plunder, ransacking, and


Artist Hovhannes Khizantsi, The Title Page, Bible, 1390, 1400, Khizan, MS 346, 2a, size 28 x 18.5


The forties of the thirteenth century are notable for Mongolian invasions and conquests.  The Mongolians overran all of Armenia and laid to waste the country which resulted in disastrous consequences everywhere.

In the eighties of the fourteenth century, Tamerlan marched upon Armenia.  He dealt a severe blow specially at the population of the city of Van the economic center of Vaspourakan.  He ordered to take the women and children to captivity, while the remaining population, bound in bundles, was thrown down the walls of the fortress.  The heap had grown so big that the last victims fell on the dead corpses and remained alive.  The other cities of Vaspourakan also sustained heavy losses.

Following the death of Tamerlan (1405), his vast domain fell to pieces.  From the very start of the fifteenth century the prolonged struggle between the nomadic tribes of Kara-koyunlu and Ak-koyunlu proved decisive for Vaspourakan and for several other provinces in the south of Armenia.  During their century long suzerainty (1406-1502), internecine wars, inroads of Kurdish tribes, heavy tolls, religious discrimination continued as before, producing ill effects primarily on the rural population at large2.

Even a summary account of historical events shows conspicuously the hard conditions under which the people had to strive to maintain their culture.

2. In the account of these problems, the member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences academician Levon Khachikian has rendered his great assistance.


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Survival After Turkish Invasion & Ruin

The local population had to exert strenuous efforts and make gigantic sacrifices to ensure the progress, albeit slow and irregular, of national culture.  In this sense, the establishment of an independent seat of the Supreme Patriarch in Vaspourakan was also of paramount importance.  David, a descendant of the Artsrouny regal dynasty, severs his ties with the patriarchate of Cilicia to assume the religious lead of the historical-ethnographic province of Vaspourakan.



Artist Astvatsatour, The Resurrection, Gospel, 1419, Vostan, MS 2670, 8a, size 28 x 18.5

The seat of the Supreme Patriarch of Akhtamar consolidated economically as well as ideologically specially in the fifties and sixties of the fifteenth century. The katholikoses (i.e., Supreme Patriarchs) of Akhtamar combined religious and secular-feudal authorities and were entitled in certain measure to rights to bring together and preserve the age-old Armenian monuments and create new assets.

Despite unfavorable political conditions obtaining at the end of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth centuries in Vaspourakan, the circumstances were such as to allow for some part of the local population (pre-eminently the clergy, the heads of villages, proprietors, merchants, and craftsmen) to embark on lively economic relations and achieve some social standing, derive material means and contribute to the writing and illumination of manuscripts which constitute a salient feature of Armenian national art.

In the fourteenth-seventeenth centuries, Vaspourakan ceased to be a political unit with definite boundaries.  The frontiers were determined in terms of submission to the religious authority of the Akhtamar Supreme Patriarchate whose influence extended, during the period under review, over the northern, eastern, and southern littoral areas of Lake Van.  Although certain centers geographically lay outside the confines of Vaspourakan proper (such as Khelat, Artskeh, some centers of Moks), they, too, came to be associated with the religious center of Akhtamar.  The significance of such relation is all the more enhanced if we realize that their culture evolved in close contact with that of Vaspourakan, forming one entity with the latter.  This was manifest particularly in the art of book illustration.  Thus the local original style of painting takes on cardinal importance.


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The Art of Book Illustration & Miniatures Continued > > >

*Information and photos about Vaspourakan miniature found on this site, unless otherwise indicated, are quoted and taken  from Armenian Miniature Vaspourakan [Madenataran, Mashtot's Institute of Old Manuscripts Under the Auspices of the Council of Ministers of the Armenian SSR, 1978; "Sovetakan Grogh" Publishing House, Yerevan].  Compiled, Introduction, and Commentaries by Hravard Hakopian; Editors: V.H. Kazarian, A.S. Matevossian; publishing editors: V.L. Vartanian, A.S. Sharourian, M.V. Sahagian, A.S. Hovsepian; photographer:R.S. Bedrossian; Kegharvesdagan editor: Ok. A. Asadrian; Krki maged@ yev dekh. editoring: A.A. Madiniani; Proofreading Editors: E. B. Boghossian, B. S. Avedissian, A. O. Ayvazian.



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