by Levon Chookaszian
Descent from the Cross

Four miniatures on the theme of the Descent from the Cross have been preserved in Roslin manuscripts of different years(1) .
In three miniatures, the subject matter of the Descent from the Cross is combined with the scene of the Entombment, and all of them bear the title "Burial of Christ". The earliest of them is the illustration in the Sebastia Gospel of 1262(2). The central figure here is Joseph of Arimathaea, who supports Christ's enfeebled body.
The character of Mary's emotional state shows the affinities between Roslin's miniature and a group of Italian, French and Serbian paintings of the 12th-13th centuries. In these works, as well as in the Armenian miniature, the Virgin is at the head of Her Son, near Joseph, supporting Christ's breathless body with him. The miniature, adorning the Italian Gospel of ca. 1150 (Nonantola, Archivio della Badia)(3) , is the earliest representation with the same iconographic peculiarity. However, with obvious similarity, there is also a divergence: while in the miniature of the Nonantola codex Mary's cheek touches Jesus's face, as if "caresses Him with her breath" (G. Millet), in the Cilician representation the Virgin presses her head to Her Son's hair. Not having any idea of Roslin's miniature of 1262, G. Millet attributes such embodiment of motherly love to the Italian works of the Duecento period and considers that the painters in Italy came to particularly like this very version.
It is not excluded that the version in question spread from Italy to the Balkans and Cilicia that is confirmed by the mentioned similarity in the Cilician and Italian illustrations. In general, the works of the Armenian artist have much in common with the Italian specimens.
On the other hand, the comprising parts of the Entombment fragment in this miniature by Roslin are close to the specimens of Byzantine book art. As for the figures of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, their disposition rather gave Roslin a hint for the Mourning scenes. In the Sebastia Gospel miniature Roslin's intention reverberates with a tradition ingrained in the Italian art of the 13th century, according to which the Entombment was taken as the mourning scene. In Roslin's miniatures, the vital truthfulness and authenticity of the images of mourning Marys sprang not only from following the old samples; the artist could have been guided by local Armenian funerary customs as well.
The miniature of the Descent from the Cross in the Gospel of Princess Keran of 1265(4) as compared to the miniature in the Sebastia Gospel, was produced on the basis of a more laconic specimen. The composition of this miniature is so simple that if the manuscripts had not been dated, it could be inferred that the illustration of the first manuscript was created on the basis of the illustrations in the second. The miniature of 1265 seems to be a part of the first scene of the Descent from the Cross. According to S. Der Nersessian, the author of this piece is not Roslin, but a pupil of his.
The miniature of 1265 was called the Burial of Christ, but the dominating theme of the scene is the Descent from the Cross. Of the canonical details of the Entombment scene, only the representation of the grave in the form of a rectangular construction has been preserved. This piece differs by a central location of the cross and new execution of the Virgin's attitude from Roslin's previous work.
The third work by Roslin on the theme of the Descent from the Cross adorns the Malatia Gospel of 1268(5).
As in the miniature of the Sebastia Gospel, the perception of the miniature of 1268 starts with the images of the Virgin and John disposed beneath, who, however, are presented in a different fashion: they sit one opposite the other, with their heads drooped and depressed with grief. An important distinction from previous illustrations here is the position of Christ's head it is thrown back, implying the sufferings experienced by the crucifixion. This detail brings the miniature close to the fresco in Mileshevo(6) , an episode in the Perusa triptych(7) , and most of all, to a part of representation of the Crucifixion, preserved in the city museum of Pisa (No. 20)(8).
The character of mourning of Mary and John in this miniature is dictated by the well-known early-Byzantine canons, according to which the women in grief are shown concealed under their clothes or closing their faces with their bare hands. Yet mourning, sitting on the ground, is an occurrence of small frequency in Christian art. In Tuscany, in the end of the Duecento and early Trecento, the seated Virgin is a widespread 'innovation'. The earliest specimen of this type is the Crucifixion by Duccio(9) . In the same piece, opposite Mary, but on the other side of the cross, mourns the seated John. The latter is depicted in the same posture on the 13th-century fresco of the Crucifixion at S. Maria di Vescovio(10) .
The fourth miniature by Roslin on the theme under study - the miniature of the Gospel of Prince Vasak, kept in Washington - greatly differs from the miniatures considered above(11) . The participants in the scene, their disposition, attitudes and gestures are familiar from tens of other pieces. It may be even conjectured that the author of this work is not Roslin but one of his pupils. Only the episode of the Descent from the Cross, without the Entombment scene, is presented here. The author did not include John the Evangelist into the scene.
Iconography of such type derives from apocryphal sources, which were popular with Byzantine authors and went over to European art(12) . Exclusion of the image of John speaks of Roslin's participation in artistic occurrences of the time. Illustrations of the Descent from the Cross in the Sebastia Gospel of 1262 and the Malatia Gospel differ in their merits from a dozen of monuments, created on the same theme in various centuries. Especially unique is the miniature in the Malatia Gospel.
The elucidated topic shows how the author perceives the human tragedy. The pieces, embodying this theme have a decisive significance to determine the mastery, creative temperament and perfection in the style of the artist.

  1.Chookaszian, Drvagner Toros Roslini jarangutiunic' (Episodes from the Legacy of Toros Roslin), Bazmavep CXLV : 1-4 (1987) : 253-86.

2.Der Nersessian, Armenian Manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery, pl. 59, fig. 84.

3.Miklos Boskovits, G. Jaszai, Kreuzabnahme - Im: Lexikon der christlicher Ikonographia, Bd. 2 (Rom, Freiburg, Basel, Wien : Herder, 1970), S. 591, 603-604, Abb. 5.

4.Besalel Narkiss (Editor), Armenian Art Treasures of Jerusalem, In collaboration with M.E.Stone, Historical Survey by A.K.Sanjian (New Rochelle : Caratzas Brothers, Publishers, 1979), fig. 70, p. 53, 149.

5.Emma Korkhmazian, Irina Drambian, Gravard Hakopian, Armenian Miniatures of the 13th and 14th Centuries from the Matenadaran Collection, Yerevan (Leningrad : Aurora Art Publishers, 1984), fig. 96.

6.Gabriel Millet, L'art des Balkans et l'Italie au XIIIe siecle. - Atti del Ve Congresso Internazionale degli Studi Bizantini, Roma, 20-26 Settembre (Roma, 1940), p. 279-280, Tav. LXXXI, LXXXII.

7.Idem, Recherches…, p. 481, fig. 514; Idem, L'art des Balkans…, p. 278-280, tav. LXXVIII-LXXX.

8.Walter W.S Cook., The Earliest Painted Panels of Catalonia (V), The Art Bulletin X : 2 (1927), fig. 74, p. 203.

9.Bernard Berenson, Quadri Senza casa. Il Trecento Senese-1, Dedalo, XI (1930-1931), p. 267.

10.G.Matthiae, Cronaca, Lavori della soprintendenza ai monumenti del Lazio. Affreschi in S.Maria di Vescovio, Bolletino d'Arte (1934) : 90-3, fig. 4, 6.

11Der Nersessian, Armenian Manuscripts in the Freer Gallery of Art, p. 29, 33, 46, fig. 126.

12.P.Ratkowska, The Iconography of the Deposition without St. John. - Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes XXVII (1964) : 312-17.