Saturday, March 11, 2017

Beginning of the first printing of the Armenian Bible (March 11, 1666)

After the pioneering publications by Hakob Meghapart in Venice (1512-1513), Armenian printing started a more consistent pace in the second half of the sixteenth century. A few decades of slow development would suffice to bring to the forefront a main concern and goal: the printing of the Bible in Armenian.

The task would ultimately be undertaken by Archbishop Oskan Yerevantsi (1614-1674), a native of Nor Jugha, the Armenian center founded in Iran after the forced emigration carried out by Shah Abbas III in 1604. Invited to Holy Etchmiadzin in 1634, Oskan met there a Dominican monk, Paolo Piromalli, who had come to Armenia with instructions to adapt the Armenian text of the Bible to the Vulgate, its Latin translation used by the Catholic Church. Piromalli, who taught Latin and other subjects to Oskan, returned to Rome four years later, but Vatican censorship did not allow him to publish his intended translation of the Bible into Armenian. Coming back to Etchmiadzin in 1642, Piromalli collaborated with Oskan to publish the Armenian Bible, but always trying to reconcile the Armenian text to the Latin. This did not come to fruition.

Twenty years later, Oskan Yerevantsi left for Europe with a letter of recommendation by Catholicos Hakob IV Jughayetsi with the goal of printing the Bible in Europe. There was no printing house in Eastern Armenia, under Persian domination, or in Western Armenia, under Ottoman domination. The ecclesiastic first went to Livorno and then to Rome, where he unsuccessfully tried to obtain license from the Vatican to publish the Bible anywhere in Italy. Afterwards, he left for Amsterdam; the Netherlands was a Protestant country and there was complete printing freedom. There, he took over the direction of the printing house named after Holy Etchmiadzin and St. Sarkis (founded by Mateos Tzaretsi in 1660) in the fall of 1664. While publishing other books, he started preliminary work for the printing of the Bible. He ordered new typefaces and ornamented letterheads, while preparing the text for publication.

Oskan worked on the printing with the help of his disciples Garabed Andrianatsi and Ohan Yerevantsi. The 1,462-paged, two column book was printed with a run of 5,000 copies. It was finished in two years and seven months (March 11, 1666 – October 13, 1668). Four lithographs were used in the title pages, with human figures representing Faith and Hope in the ornamental pictures left and right. The word Աստուածաշունչ (Asdvadzashoonch, “Bible”) is printed in bird-like script, and the book cover is red leather-covered, thick wood. The book used seven different typefaces and 159 pictures, mostly by Dutch engraver Christoffel van Sichem the Younger (1581-1658). 
The first edition was partly marred by the text, which constituted a distortion of the fifth century translation. It was probably based on the manuscript commanded by King Hethum II of Cilicia (1294-1301) in 1295. However, it was edited—whether by Piromalli or by Oskan himself—with an eye on the Vulgate, and Oskan translated and added several books of the Old Testament, which were missing from the Armenian Bible and its canon. Its middle position between the classical text and the Vulgate was aimed at making it palatable to Armenians of all denominations, as well as the Catholic Church hierarchy. The next two editions of the Bible (Constantinople, 1705, and Venice, 1733, the latter by Mekhitar of Sebastia, the founder of the Mekhitarist Congregation) were based on the 1666 edition. In 1805 a Mekhitarist monk, Hovhannes Zohrabian, published the fourth edition of the Bible, where he restored the original translation of the Golden Age.

Oskan’s edition was criticized, but it had a great impact on Armenians everywhere. A specially ordered copy from the famous Dutch artist/bookbinder Albert Magnus, with deluxe binding, was presented to the French king Louis XIV. That exemplar is now kept at the National Library of France.