The Art of Calligraphy: Script in its purest forms - on Asbarez and Armenian Weekly
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— Book of Proverbs, 1:2.
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The Art of Armenian Calligraphy
Archaeological digs of the last decades on the territory of the Armenian Plateau show signs of a developed a culture capable of building temples and using agriculture around 12-7th millennium B.C., – making it one of the oldest inhabited parts of the world. Armenians pride themselves on being the first nation formally to adopt Christianity as its state religion (301 A.D.), the consequences of which played a decisive role in the formation of an Armenian spiritual culture and the birth of the national alphabet and literacy.
Invented in the year 405 A.D. by St. Mesrop Mashtots and designed with the help of scribe Rophanos, the creation of the Armenian alphabet was a pivotal moment in the history of the Armenian nation. Fifth century Armenia became the location of ceaseless confrontations between Byzantium and Persia and the invention of the new alphabet prevented assimilation into the linguistic dominance of one of the neighboring empires, establishing a true national identity based on an innate substance.
The alphabet of Mashtots' was so lucid and easily learnt as to become current, widely and instantaneously, across the social and economic boundaries of Armenian society in the fifth century: soldiers scribbled it on papyri, pilgrims scratched it on rocks. It immediately evolved cursive forms. It became permanently inseparable from the essential components of Armenian identity: Armenian was never again to be written otherwise, and even Armenians who spoke alien tongues used their own script to write in them. The overall effect was at least as galvanizing and dramatic as the outcome of the mass literacy campaigns of modern revolutionary societies. ( 2 )
Prior to this, documents were written in Greek, Syriac and Aramaic – scripts which Mashtots studied extensively as possible source models for the Armenian writing system during his travels across Asia Minor, Egypt and Sinai. One-to-one correspondence between sounds, letters and order constitutes a similarity with the Greek alphabet and displays an apparent intention of orienting Armenians westward. Thus the aesthetics of Angular Erkata'gir resemble graceful Greek and Roman inscriptions: letters are large, erect and clearly separated. Interestingly, according to the biography of Mashtots, Koriun, a pupil of Mashtots, carefully avoided giving total credit to Mashtots for creating the script. In fact, Koriun avoids using the word "creation" or "invention" anywhere in his account, referring to Mashtots as a 'translator' who was "looking for a thing" that was "found" in Edessa where Mashtots received his "divine" vision inspiring the new alphabet.
Paleographers have proposed different views on the roots of the Armenian alphabet, some citing Phoenician, Assyro-Babylonian, Hittite and Greek origins. It is the latter theory which is universally accepted - the base script for 24 letters which Mashtots completed and adopted is Greek. They are identical to Greek in their phonetic value and their almost entirely preserved order, but the Armenian language is more complex and required an additional 14 letters for correct phonetic representation. With these additional 14 letters, the number of Armenian letters reached 36, representing six vowels and thirty consonants. In the following centuries three more characters - և - Օ - ֆ were added, bringing the total number of letters to 39.
The calligraphic tools
Until the introduction of paper in the tenth century, the common writing material was parchment. For some of the better-preserved manuscripts, the parchment was of an exceptional quality, allowing the ink to retain most of its density until the present day; it was thin and soft as paper, bright, sometimes simply white. There was naturally a variety of parchment in common use at this time, ranging from thick pieces of varying quality in the early years, to these aforementioned higher quality specimens; much of this was of course a function of the wealth of the supporting patron or monastery for which a piece of work was commissioned. The quality of parchment was affected by whether it was well treated on both sides or not. It was made from the skin of domestic animals, with the most appreciated pieces takn from the skin of a lamb or a dead-born animal. Especially refined parchments (vellums) were used in Cilician Armenia and were most likely imported from Western Europe and the Crusader's Kingdoms. The earliest dated Armenian handwritten manuscript on paper (Matenadaran No 2679) was created in 981 by the priest Davit and his son, calligrapher Gukas.
Many early Armenian manuscripts employed brown ink containing an iron oxide rather than the dark black of an Indian or Chinese ink. The inks were tested on marble plates and were prepared in containers made from clams. There were virtually hundreds of recipes for ink, prepared chemically or from natural pigments and minerals. Apart from basic components such as clay and metal, egg yolk and honey, other natural elements were used. Water was used to mix the ink and by the end of the process, gold, silver or wax polish was often applied to the surface. Black and red colors were most frequently in use, along with some usage of brown, green and blue, which were famous for their quality across Europe and the East. Arab writers and calligraphers often used and praised Armenian colors, especially "vordan karmir - որդան կարմիր" known in Europe as "Porphyrophora hamelii" or "Armenian red", and in the Arab world as "kirmiz" - a deep crimson dye (RGB 220, 20, 60) extracted from an insect (Pseudococcus) common to the Ararat Valley.
The traditionally accepted theory is of Mesropean script's linear evolution, although a thesis that most script types except Sła'gir (modern cursive) were in use from early on, perhaps even from the start, seems to be gaining ground. That we have few examples of later scripts used in the early manuscripts might be simply a result of loss over time. Two of Matenadaran's collection manuscripts' colophons – MS2877 and MS2684 (1159) are written in Sła'gir and belong to the eleventh to twelfth centuries ( 4 ). This script is thought to have been used exclusively only in the late XIX century, some 700 year later.
The Bolor'gir (Բոլորգիր) script developed more elegant and graphic forms and although by its definition a round script, the characters are slanted and letters appear to have sharp corners. The contrast between the base shape and the connecting strokes is not as extreme as in Erkata'gir, and it is a more cursive type of script (characters are placed closer to one another), with smaller sizes and altered shapes.
It is a "four line" script with the body of the letters positioned between the baseline and capline with extensions placed between ascending and descending lines that terminate the movement of the hand. The proportion of the script's height to width is 1:1, 1:1.5, 1:2. Some characters are composed of two elements, therefore doubling their size in width, with the height of the letters including the extension of doubles or triples. There are two varieties of Bolor'gir: the Cilician and the Eastern (Armenia proper), with the former being more articulate and precise, while the latter retains some of the cornerstone elements of Erkata'gir.
Grigor Tatevatzi, a philosopher and painter of the fourteenth century, gave a symbolic and aesthetic interpretation for the relationship between black (dark) text and the white space of the paper. According to his vision, apart from the evident purpose of good visibility and easy comprehension of words, the black color symbolized the pain of original sin, while the white color was a symbol of innocence at birth. The white margins surrounding the text represent the four sides of the cross.
The text of Script Classification is based on D. Kouymjian ( California State University ) essay from "Album of Armenian Paleography". It underwent my editing to suit the content of this article, but due credit belongs to the source. I greatfully acknowldege his willingness to allow me to use his research and I am very thankful to J.R.Russell ( Harward University ) and Michael Stone ( HUJI ) for their contributions and inspiration.
1. The British Cyclopedia of the Arts, Sciences and History
1 The British Cyclopedia of the Arts, Sciences and History. Published by Wm. S. Orr and co., 1838