Perhaps the most important illuminated manuscript of the Armenian aristocratic tradition still surviving today, the Etchmiadzin Gospel, now catalogue M2374 in Matenadaran, represents a truly multicultural convergence of artistic and iconographic traditions which defined the flourishing Armenian monarchy in the 10th century.
The manuscript itself was created in the 10th century, rather assuredly dated to 989. The inner portraits of the evangelists and the richly decorated canon tables all reflect similar manuscripts produced near Etchmiadzin in the first half of that century, with carefully and professionaly drawn portraits painted in lush, thick colours, including costly purple and gold obtained through contact with Byzantium. Figures are usually togate, reflecting the classical styles of the Latin west. The tables display a fine eye for colour-gradation and shading, with subtle silver tones gradually growing deeper to create depth; a remarkable contrast to the flat, monotonic style prevalent at the time.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the manuscript is a series of four framed miniatures sewn into the binding, most obviously the work of the 7th century, reflecting even earlier 5th and 6th century art on stone, and probably excised from a previous manuscript. These are, in order:
These are the earliest works of Armenian manuscript art still extant today. In style, they are obviously Armenian. The figures are shown either facing directly forward or in stark profile, with broad, flat faces, wide eyes, and thick, expressive eyebrows. The Magi in the third portrait wear the traditional costumes of the Sassanian nobility: long, billowing trousers, golden earrings, ornate jackets, and tassles waving from the back of their caps. Each of the four, though all are somewhat water-damaged, still display vibrant colours, reminiscent more of an Italian fresco than the formalized, expressionless icons of the Greek world. Other details, such as the spinning basket beside Mary in the Annunciation, betray a stereotypically Armenian apocryphal gospel tradition.
The last important part of the manuscript is the carven ivory cover, depicting a framed, seated Mary holding the baby Jesus in her lap in the center, surround by 5 panels of various episodes in the life of the baby Jesus, and beneath a panel with two angels flanking a rounded cross. The various narrative scenes seems to have been carven by an Armenian artist trained in Byzantium, and while beautiful, offer very little that is culturally exceptional. The cross in the top is highly reminiscent of the Khatchka'r, again reminiscent of the Armenian noble tradition. All of these elements combine to convey the clear message that this manuscript is the product of a proud, wealthy nobility with a clear sense of national identity; no wonder that this is among the greatest of Armenia's treasures.