MATERIAL: Woodcut
TYPE: Hymnal
COMPONENTS: Original binding and the colored pages.
NOTES: Rare.
ITEM ID: 5295
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Armenian Hymnal

DATE
Year: 1664
Decade: 1660s
Century: 17th (1601-1700)

This is the principle canon of Armenian liturgical music, containing the 1166 canonical hymns (sharakan in Armenian) used in the liturgy of the Armenian Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the Armenian Catholic Church.

Authored by Matt’eos Vanadets’i, published by Oskan Ervants’i, and using Dutch woodcutter and engraver Christopher van Sichem’s woodcut illustrations, this copy still has it’s original binding and the colored pages make it especially beautiful. And though not as valuable as the 1666 first printed Armenian Bible (which was also printed in Amsterdam), it is rarer.

Scholar Haig Utidjian commented, “You are very very fortunate to have found this, James. To my mind this is by far the most precious Armenian item in your collection I have seen. Hand-coloured exemplars are especially rare. I talk about one in my 2016 book but yours are finer and more consistent.

The hymnal is remarkable – tiny but beautifully clear – including the neumatic notation. Indeed, it was a marvelous achievement, inter alia, for its disentanglement of interconnected neumes, drawn up by scribes, and here reduced to individual components by the editors. (But no discernible relation to Middle Byzantine neumes.) Well done! I want to see this in the flesh, one day! Guard it with your life!”

Scholar Elisabeth Z Pehlivanian commented, “An incredible treasure! I’m a bit taken back by the presence of the Hebrew letters and Latin inscriptions? Although the khazakroutiounes are indicative of the Armenian scales, it’s also fascinating to see illustrations with the European notes. I wonder if Van Sichem’s fascinating mixture/representation of different cultures, instruments, costumes, etc. juxtaposed with magnificent Armenian illuminations makes this book a unique specimen. Definitely a bridge to the Armenian Catholic Church. No wonder it was used by both the Armenian Orthodox and Catholic sects. Thank you for acquiring it.”

Scholar Sebouh Aslanian comments about this book, “Beautiful indeed! These magnificent books from Oscan Yerevants’is press are simultaneously puzzling and disarming in their beauty.

This volume is unusual and precious in large measure because it has wood block engravings that were later “colored in” by unknown artists or illuminators. I know of a few other instances where colorization was introduced after the a book was first printed and bound. I recall seeing a New Testament (1668, also Saint Sargis Zoravar and Saint Ejmiatsin atelier in Amsterdam) gorgeously adorned like this, and I think you also own that copy. My sense is that these few surviving colorized samples were worked on by an artist or by the book’s distinguished owner (most likely a senior vardapet or even an archbishop arkepiskopos). This was done probably to render each mechanically reproduced printed edition resemble or approximate as much as possible the manuscript’s original “aura.”

In his iconic essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin invoked the ancient Latin term “aura” to designate the singular “traces” of the artist’s presence that emanates from a given work, “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” In a work of painting, for example, the artist’s aura may be perceived by carefully examining the singular brushstrokes of a painter–an original attribute of the work of art that one cannot experience in poster-size reproductions. This is one of the reasons why, for Benjamin, ‘the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.’

Printing (not particularly examined by Benjamin) was one of the first capitalist industries in Europe grounded on the principle of mechanical reproduction. It was faster, cheaper, and eliminated unwanted errors from being reproduced. That which made it attractive to consumers, however, also created enormous amounts of cultural insecurity and dissonance, especially in print’s early history when it was still insecurely competing to displace the manuscript from its millennial throne. Print signaled the death of authenticity and the ‘waning of aura.’ To overcome what Benjamin referred to as ‘ultimate shattering of tradition’ (221), a break with the authenticity of experience in the past, some early printers like Oscan and his entourage (or the consumers of his liturgical works) resorted to colorization in an attempt to make contact with the Sharakan’s missing “aura.” Lavishly decorated and colorized print editions like this capture a moment in history where a high end consumer of this hymnal chose verisimilitude of authenticity as a surrogate for the irreplaceable aura of a lone scribe writing and illuminating a sacral object for the church.”

ARTISTS
Name: Matt'eos Vanadets'i
Type: Author
Name: Christoffel van Sichem
Type: Artist
Name: Oskan Ervants'i
Type: Publisher

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