Highlighting the Holidays: An Armenian “Three Magi” at the Library of Congress

(The following is a guest post by Levon Avdoyan, Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

17th century Armenian calligraphy sheet featuring the "three magi." African and Middle Eastern Division.

17th century Armenian calligraphy sheet featuring the “three magi.” African and Middle Eastern Division.

When I began working at the Library of Congress in 1992 as the Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist to the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division, it was as if a wonderfully extended Christmas began. I had certainly used the collections before then for my own research, but now I found myself with direct responsibility for an amazingly beautiful collection of Armenian manuscripts, illuminations, fabrics and documents.

The section is home to an important collection of Middle Eastern book covers and several rich collections of disbound calligraphy sheets from many of the languages of the Middle East. These and other items were procured in the 1930s from Kirkor Minassian, a dealer in fine Islamic and near Eastern art with establishments both in New York and Paris.

Of these calligraphy sheets, 17 are from Armenian manuscripts, and from these, six leaves come from a 17th century Haysmawurk‘ (Lectionary /Synaxary) – collections that provided the celebrants and worshipers with the daily textual readings associated with the various saints’ days and religious feasts throughout the ecclesiastical year. As these leaves were removed from a larger manuscript, we have no indication of the date of its creation nor, indeed, of the identities of the scribe who copied the manuscript or of the artist who sumptuously illustrated it. It is likely both from the palaeography (the style of the letters) and the artistic style of the illuminations that the manuscript was a production of the 17th century.

Leaf depicting the feast of Easter. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Leaf depicting the feast of Easter. African and Middle Eastern Division.

A particular leaf from that exceptional Armenian lectionary presents us with an intimate portrayal of the magi as they present their gifts to the infant Jesus. The regal magi are juxtaposed with Mary and Jesus set among the animals in attendance and Joseph standing in the background. The theme of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus is a common one in Armenian manuscript illuminations, each of which reflects the artistic traditions of the era in which it was drawn. This beautiful example certainly can be enjoyed as a unique painting of the event, but as with all our collections, it can also fit into a broader historical narrative and exploration.

When I look at this particular representation of the well-known tradition, my thoughts lead to another intriguing aspect of the magi especially in the ancient Armenian tradition. A magus was not only a noble or royal personage, he was also a priest in the Zoroastrian religion. In 65 A.D., following a treaty of peace between Rome and the Persian Parthian Empire, the young magus and Parthian candidate to the Armenian throne, Tiridates I, journeyed to Rome to receive the regalia of kingship from the Emperor Nero (37 – 68 A.D.). So spectacular was his nine-month journey that several classical Greek and Latin authors described its magnificence. The description of people along the route gathering to mark its package indicates that its splendor was widely reported and appreciated.

One noted scholar of the 20th century, Ernst Herzfeld (1879 – 1948), went so far as to theorize that this journey of the Magus Tiridates, so well-known to the ancient world, might even have influenced the biblical narrative of the legendary three magi and their journey to the infant Jesus.

Ornate leaf dedicated to the feast of St. John the Baptist depicts St. George, whose image is defaced. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Ornate leaf dedicated to the feast of St. John the Baptist depicts St. George, whose image is defaced. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the cycle would be fulfilled in the early fourth century A.D. when Tiridates I’s descendent, Tiridates III, decreed that Christianity was the state religion of the Kingdom of Greater Armenia. Thus, according to the late fourth century Greek ecclesiastical historian Sozomenos, Armenia became the first nation to make Christianity its state religion.

Similar studies can certainly be based on several of the remaining leaves as well. There is a particularly ornate leaf dedicated to the feast of Easter, as well as another for the feast day of St. John the Baptist. What is curious about the latter is that while the text is clearly dedicated to St. John, the illumination on the page depicts St. George fighting the dragon and the saint is unexplainably defaced. Why that image for St. John? Why was that defacement?

What is so marvelous about the varied custodial collections of the Library of Congress is that they serve a variety of disciplines and thus as the focus of research for scholars in many of them.

Indeed, the eventual digitization of these sheets will allow art historians around the world to examine them and perhaps further identify them. And who knows? Other sheets from the same manuscript might be found, leading to its virtual reconstruction!

More of the Library’s historical treasures are highlighted here in celebration of the season. 

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