Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries

Hayrapet Jul'ayec'i bible
Fig 1.: Manuscript Bible, illustrated by Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i, 1649 in New Julfa. (“Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Instutute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts, ms 189) .

The four images in this post- two from Western Europe, two from the Safavid Empire- paint a picture of the inter-connectivity of places, religious communities, and cultural traditions of early modern western Eurasia, inter-connectivity that took place without any single power or region dominating, as would be true from the nineteenth century forward. These images also illustrate the problems with the language of ‘influence,’ as well as the fact that religious communities and traditions that were at odds in some respects could still participate in shared cultural paradigms and draw upon the work and concepts of others in creative ways. In particular these images demonstrate the complicated place of ‘print culture’ in a Eurasian context, printed texts co-existing and interacting with non-print modes well through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In this first pair of images, Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, illustrating the first chapters of Genesis, the Armenian illustrator Hayrapet Jul’ayec’i has drawn upon the images of Johann Theodor de Bry for his own illumination of the Bible. The relationship is obvious upon even casual examination, such that one might be tempted to call the Armenian paintings ‘copies.’ But slightly closer examination reveals something more subtle going on. Jul’ayec’i has followed the general form and many of the details of de Bry’s engravings, but has done so in a transformative way: the images have been placed in a new arrangement, one that proceeds in chronological order from left to right, the borders dividing the scenes employing motifs with deep roots in Armenian illumination. Most significantly, Jul’ayec’i has rendered these scenes in color, in brilliant color which calls to mind earlier illumined Armenian Bibles. The entire production has furthermore been placed within a manuscript Bible, instead of the printed Bible of de Bry. The reference to de Bry, and by extension, Western European art conventions, remains unmistakable- but in rendering them in the bright splashes of Armenian painting they have been translated and re-appropriated (there is literal translation as well- note the inclusion of Armenian text in Jul’ayec’i’s painting). ‘Remix’ is one way of thinking about such a piece, the form remaining but the interpretation rendered making the piece an effectively new creation, the mood and resonances it conveys departing dramatically from the original ‘cited’ imagery, even as the new art depends on the original to some degree.

Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3
Fig. 2.: Biblia Sacra vulgatæ, pages 2 & 3, engravings by Johann Theodor de Bry, Mainz, 1609 (General Research Division, The New York Public Library).

What is particularly notable about Jul’ayec’i’s art, and that of the many other Armenian artists and manuscript producers who employed similar techniques vis-a-vis print culture circulating in Armenian communities (which in itself reminds us that it was not unusual for a Bible printed in the Netherlands to end up in the Safavid lands), is that Armenians were not themselves strangers to print culture. The first Armenian book was printed in 1512, with an increasing pace of printing in a number of presses across the vast Armenian world of western Eurasia. Simultaneously, Armenians produced, sponsored, and purchased manuscripts such as that from which contain Jul’ayec’i’s illuminations. Print culture was useful for some things, while manuscript culture and its associated arts continued to play an important role, from liturgical texts to diaries to magical scrolls. And just as manuscript arts and traditions left their imprint in Armenian print culture (and many other iterations of print culture across early modern Eurasia), the new possibilities that printing opened up could find their way into manuscript production.

In the Safavid world, Armenians were not the only people creatively adapting and ‘remixing’ Western European print culture material. Persian-speaking Muslim artists, such as the seventeenth century painter Muhammad Zaman, were also making interesting use of imagery circulating out of Western Europe. Witness Zaman’s rendering of the iconic scene of Judith with the head of Holofernes:

MSS 1005
Fig. 3.: Judith with the Severed Head of Holofernes, Muhammad Zaman, c. 1680,
Isfahan, Safavid Iran (Khalili Collections MSS 1005).

Zaman’s depiction of this scene incorporates material from an etching of a painting by the fifteenth century Italian artist Andrea Mantegna (fig. 4). But just as his Armenian contemporary had done with de Bry’s etchings, Zaman has transformed the scene. It is now in bright and vivid color, reminiscent of more traditional forms of Persianate miniature (which itself had long been in dialogue with Armenian painting). Just as Jul’ayec’i reframed his source material, Zaman has not only filled out the scene around Judith and her maidservant with lush vegetation, vivid flora, and a scene of a camp and a city in the background, but in keeping with the conventions of Persianate art he has embedded his painting within a series of frames, frames that are as much a part of the painting as the main image itself. Particularly strikingly, he has filled the upper panel with realistic flowers, flora typical of alpine Eurasia such as primroses and irises. The result is a striking contrast between the delicate beauty of the flowers and the gory sight of Holofernes’ head being held aloft, a somewhat incongruous scene. What would Zaman’s viewers have taken away from this painting? Would they have known to what it was referring, whether in terms of story or in terms of the source in Andrea Mantegna’s depiction? The Western European elements, as in the Armenian imagery above, are unmistakable, diverging as they do from the canons of Persianate art: yet they have been rendered into a Persianate style and frame (literally and figuratively). Some of the meaning is retained, while other aspects are transformed- for instance, it is possible that most viewers would not have known the story itself, leading them to imagine their own story or to connect the image with stories they did know. Continue reading “Print Culture Remixed: Safavid Painting Across Confessional Boundaries”

Which Breasts are More Delightful?

The excerpt below is from a Western Christian exegete, Alan of Lille (1128?-1203), a scholar and teacher who composed a number of works of Scripture commentary. While there are many similarities between this Latin commentary and that of Gregory of Narek’s Armenian commentary—they are both coming from a broad tradition of Song of Songs interpretation—there are also some marked differences. Alan’s allegorical reading moves along a different track: whereas Gregory read the Song as referring to the relationship between Christ and the soul, Alan here informs us of at least two possible readings. One is that of the Song being about Christ and the Church, a fairly common interpretation in the Latin West. However, such a correspondence is not Alan’s intention here. Rather, as he notes at the beginning of his commentary, he is going to read the Song as being about Christ and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. To a modern reader, even one sympathetic to allegorical and multi-valenced readings of Scripture, this is neither an obvious nor perhaps particularly tasteful interpretation. However, Alan develops it in depth and on multiple levels, as evidenced here. His interpretation is subtle and deliberately multi-valenced, developing a range of correspondences and meanings, some on a ‘literal’ level, others at a deeper allegorical or ‘mystical’ level. Finally, alongside the allegorical or mystical sense, Alan also wishes to develop a didactic or pedagogical meaning within the text. All of these levels are visible in this fairly brief excerpt, evidence of a fairly sophisticated and involved reading of one of the most treasured and commented-upon of all Scriptural texts in the Latin West.

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 2. … And so, although the song of love, Solomon’s wedding song, refers particularly and according to its spiritual sense to the Church, in its most particular and spiritual reference it signifies the most glorious Virgin: this, with divine help, we will explain as far as will be within our power.

3. So it is that in her eagerness for the presence of the Bridegroom, longing for that glorious conception of which she was told by the angel and out of her desire for the divine incarnation, the glorious Virgin speaks thus:

4. May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: This is but to say what is elsewhere said in these words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word. For she had listened to the Archangel Gabriel who was sent to her as a heavenly proxy for her Bridegroom; and he honours the Virgin, filled as she is with extraordinary and spiritual blessing, and speaks a special and unheard of greeting: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. And when she heard that the Son of God would be born of her, she found no cause for self-congratualation in this news, she did not allow herself to be carried away by this word, nor did she take pride in herself because of her child; rather did she humble herself in and through all things before God; and, never doubting the prophetic word, she replied: Behold the handmaid of the Lord.

5. Which is the same as saying: be it done unto me according to your word, that is, at your word I will conceive the Word of God. And this is what is meant here by: May he kiss me with the kiss of his mouth….

8. For your breasts are more delightful than wine: Which is as much as to say, ‘You desire my kisses and I your breasts, for your breasts are more delightful than wine.’ I can read this literally as referring to the Virgin’s natural breasts, for the Gospel speaks of them in these terms: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which you have sucked. Which breasts are more delightful, which better, than those which gave milk to Christ, milk drawn not by the foulness of lust, but from the rich store of virginity? Christ longed for those breasts, he longed to draw milk from them, so as to experience not the deceitful taste of the flesh, but rather the antidote of her virginity. Those breasts were to Christ sweeter than wine, sweeter than the most pleasing of all drinks. For wine is the drink of drinks; it is what we mean we speak of ‘having a good drink.’

9. More fragrant than the finest ointments, that is, they may be compared to fragrance to the very best oils; for what oils emit by way of fragrance, the virginal breasts bestow in integrity. Because as the one attracts by its fragrance, the others nourish Christ on their auroma.

Alan of Lille, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. by Denys Turner in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs.