On January 19, 2011, the University of California, Los Angeles hosted a lecture by UC Davis Art History Professor Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, entitled “Heritage in Conflict: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript.” Watenpaugh’s lecture focused on the conflict
surrounding the seven detached leaves of Canon Tables belonging to the Zeytʿun Gospels, which recently resurfaced after their mysterious disappearance half a century ago. In 1994, these missing pages were loaned by an anonymous collector to the Morgan Library in New York for a public exhibition. The same year, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles claimed to have legally acquired the Canon Tables – presumably from the same unnamed collector – for an unclosed sum of money. Last year, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum challenging its ownership of the Canon Tables and demanding their return. The Canon Tables were separated from the original Zeyt’un Gospels, currently housed in the Maštoc’ Matenadaran (Ms. 10450) in Yerevan Armenia, during the Armenian Genocide.
According to Watenpaugh’s lecture, the Gospels were well-traveled even before their modern disappearance. They ended up in the Church of Zeyt’un (present-day Süleymanli, Turkey) after the medieval period. In 1915, the Gospels were then entrusted to an unnamed individual for safekeeping. Eventually, the manuscript that housed the Gospels was loaned to a Dr. Łazarian, who in 1922 delivered them to the American Missionaries in Marash. In 1928, someone by the name of Lehman brought the Zeyt’un Gospels to Istanbul, where the renowned Armenian art historian, Sirarpie Der Nersessian, analyzed them. Watenpaugh suggests that the Zeyt’un Gospels were recovered by Church Officials during World War II, at which point the seven torn leaves of the Canon Tables were discovered.
The mysterious provenance of the Zeyt’un Gospels is not the only reason that the manuscript has attracted a great deal of attention throughout the years. The Gospels are the first known signed work of the most important Armenian miniature painter of the Middle Ages, Toros Roslin. Roslin illuminated the manuscript in 1256 in the scriptorium of Hṙomkla for the Armenian High Patriarch, or Catholicos, Constantine I. Roslin’s style is well noted for its delicacy, elegance, and innovative iconographic techniques, which also suggest knowledge of the conventions used in Western Europe by Roslin’s contemporaries. The Gospels’ rarity and uniqueness have exalted their position not only within the Armenian community but also throughout the world. The Armenian Church also believes the Gospels to be sacred and to possess supernatural powers. When the Gospels where housed at the Church in Zeyt’un, they were believed to provide its citizens protection. Watenpaugh claims that during the early years of the First World War, the Gospels were showcased in the streets by the local priests.
Story by Tamer Boyadjian