Evangelium Sanctum, in Arabic

Rome, Medici Oriental Press, 1591.


FIRST EDITION. Folio, ff. 368. Arabic letter, a few lines in Latin on title and colophon, all neatly impressed on thick paper; double-fillet border on each page and some Arabesque head- and tail-pieces, a hundred and forty-nine large and charming woodcuts illustrations of Christ’s life and passion partially by Antonio Tempesta and Leonardo Parasole, with sixty-seven blocks repeated; oil splash on mid-outer margin, clean marginal tear to 192; a few leaves slightly aged browned, couple of pages slightly foxed. A good copy in modern dark morocco over boards; occasional contemporary marginalia in Armenian, red ink mark at beginning of chapters; small blue stamp of the Dr. Caro Minasian’s library in Isfahan on title, final leaf and few other blank spaces; contemporary Arabic note (title?) on upper-edge. Original fly leaves preserved.

Rare Arabic edition of the Gospels and first publication of the renowned Medici Oriental Press, established in Rome in 1584 with the endorsement of Pope Gregory XIII and Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici (later Gran Duke of Tuscany). The main aim of this enterprise, run by the famous Oriental scholar Giovanni Battista Raimondi, was to print religious books in the most common Oriental languages (i.e., Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, Ethiopic and Persian) and distribute them in the East so as to encourage the spread of the Gospels. The splendid Arabic font employed in this edition was designed by Robert Granjon, the official type-cutter of the press. In 1591, the Medici press published also the interlinear edition with the Latin original text, also edited by Raimondi. This bilingual version was used in Europe for teaching Arabic and thus survives in a much greater number of copies than the pure Arabic edition, which was distributed (and almost certainly not warmly welcomed) in the Middle East for (literally speaking) evangelisation. It seems likely that the beautiful illustrations included in the book as an aid for readers were not at all appreciated by Muslims, who, according to the Koran, forbid contemplation of images of God. A large part of the print-run may have been quickly destroyed.

Curiously, this copy bears a few contemporary annotations in Armenian, possibly written by a member of some Armenian (thus Christian) minority settled either in the Ottoman or Persian Empires (where the edition was shipped to). It comes from the valuable collection of Caro Minasian, ‘an Armenian physician from Isfahan, Iran, who began collecting in 1935 and spent his life amassing manuscripts and antiquities of varied provenance and background. In many ways, he is symbolic of the Armenian community of Isfahan, largely associated with the distinct suburb of New Julfa, where they were settled by Shah Abbas I in 1604. The community has developed a unique socio-cultural ambience based on historical Armenian traditions accented with elements from its Persian setting and from its important interactions with the significant European presence in the city during Safavid times. By 1968, when his private library was acquired by UCLA, it included several hundred Armenian medieval manuscripts, including the Gladzor Gospels (the prime example of a medieval Armenian biblical codex), a substantial collection of Armenian printed incunabula and rare editions, a small group of Sumerian artifacts and other archeological treasures, and approximately 1,500 single works and majmuas (manuscript collections).’

‘The editio princeps of the Gospels in Arabic … The early editions of the Arabic Gospels are all forms of the ‘Alexandrian Vulgate’’. Darlow, II/1, p. 63.

Not in BM STC It. Adams, B 1822; Brunet, II, 1123; Graesse, II, 531; Darlow, 1636; Mortimer, Italian, 64.


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