The era of the Armenian Cilician Kingdom, between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries, marks the golden age of Armenian manuscript illumination. In the first half of the thirteenth century the most beautiful and sumptuous manuscripts were copied and illuminated under royal patronage by the most famous Armenian artist Toros Roslin.
Armenian manuscript experts Levon Azarian, Sirarpie Der Nersessian and A. Mkhitarian attribute to Roslin five unsigned manuscripts, including the Queen Keran Gospels, completed in 1272, commissioned on the occasion of her coronation with her consort, King Levon, and presented to the Monastery of Akner.
The manuscript was bound in Jerusalem in 1727 in gold repousse work by the monks of St James in Jerusalem. Sometime in 1910 two leaves from this sumptuous manuscript were torn out and sold.
They were bought by the Dutch collector of antiquities Michel Van Rijn and a description of them was published in Icons and East Christian Works of Art, edited and published by Michel Van Rijn, Amsterdam, 1980. Under entry 53 there is this description "Two pages from an Illuminated Manuscript portraying an evangelist, probably Luke or Mark, and Christ's Ascension. 32 x 22cm, Armenian, 2nd half 13th century (Plates 52 and 53 reproduce the miniatures in full colour).
In 1988 Greek businessman and art collector Mr Thanassis Martinos acquired the Van Rijn collection which included the two manuscript leaves.
On May 18, 2011 I received a letter from Mrs. Maria Mersinia, Librarian-archivist on the suggestion of Mr Timothy Bolton, medieval manuscript expert at Sotheby's, inquiring about the leaves.
In my response I confirmed that the two leaves did belong to an Armenian manuscript and their "return to its lawful owner would restore the manuscript to its former glory."
In reply I was assured that Mr. Thanassis has no intention to sell the leaves and has the full intention to return the two miniatures as a gift to the Armenian Patriarchate, if I could provide solid proof that the leaves belonged to an Armenian manuscript.
Having investigated the matter and collected all the required documentation I prepared a "Memorandum for the restitution to the Library of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem two illuminated leaves belonging to Jerusalem MS.2563, dated 1272" outlining the available evidence.
The Jerusalem Patriarch Abp. Torkom Manoogian sent an official "Letter of authorization" dated June 6, 2011 that thanked Sotheby's for allowing the examination of the miniatures and expressed readiness to accept them back into the Jerusalem collection.
For his part, Thanassis Martinos expressed "great pride and satisfaction to return these two important manuscripts to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem." On Sunday, November 6, I celebrated Divine Liturgy in the church of St Yeghiche, London in the presence of Mr. Thanassis and Mrs Marina Martinos and their family, attended by members of the Armenian Community Church Council. The two leaves were on display on the altar of the Church. At the end of the liturgy, I presented a very emotional homily before taking full ownership of the two miniatures for onward transmission to, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
After 35 years of curatorship in the British Library in charge of the Armenian collections, I have saved from "captivity" one hundred and fourteen manuscripts. My last and final act in the library was negotiating and facilitating the return of these two miniatures to the Armenian people in my capacity as ‘Curator in Charge of the Armenian Section in the British Library’. I left the library on August 31, 2011 and I could not dream of a more befitting gift than the return of these two leaves to Jerusalem.