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Thomas the Apostle

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Saint Thomas the Apostle with Scroll

Russian Orthodox icon of St. Thomas the Apostle, with scroll, 18th century (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia).

IntroductionEdit

Saint Thomas is one of the original Twelve Apostles chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ to be His follower. We learn from the gospels that the Apostle Thomas was deeply devoted to our Lord throughout His earthly ministry and that he remained a faithful servant to Him after His Ascension into Heaven. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Saint Thomas, along with Christ's other disciples, traveled throughout many regions preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and healing those in need. He, like the others, faced many trials and endured harsh persecution by the hands of those who were opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Nevetheless, all of the Lord's disciples continued spreading His gospel, even to the point of death. According to tradition, Saint Thomas was murdered while preaching in Calamine, a city in India in which the Apostle is noted to have lived at one time.

We have little information about Saint Thomas’ life from New Testament writings. However, they provide us with important information pertaining to his steadfast devotion to the Lord through his own words and actions, and of his skeptic nature [i.e, his initial refusal to believe that Christ had risen], a characteristic which earned him the title, "Doubting Thomas." Apparently, this human weakness that we find in the Apostle Thomas [aka Didymus] was fully overcome as evidenced by the fruits of his ministry. For today, there are numerous churches which bear his name and a devoted Christian following in India.

Ii is worthwhile to note that there is additional information about the Apostle besides what is written in the New Testament. Information found in Apochryphal literature (i.e., The "Acta Thomae" [1]), sheds much more light on the Apostle’s life, although the reliability of much of its content has been disputed.

The Call to ApostleshipEdit

All three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, inform us of how Jesus, at the start of His earthly ministry, chose twelve disciples out of the vast number who followed Him and designated them Apostles. Thomas was numbered among the Twelve.

The gospels also tell how Jesus commanded them to go throughout all Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and across the Jordan, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and how they received authority from Christ to cure the blind and to heal the sick, and to deliver those who were oppressed by from evil spirits just as He Himself had done (See The Great Commission).

As mentioned before, this “Great Commission” which our Lord gave to His Twelve Apostles (and to His other disciples later) is found in the first three gospels of the New Testament, all of which name the ywelve Apostles and explain the orders that they received from the Lord. Christ’s choosing of the Twelve is noted in the gospel passages below.

  • Matthew 10:1-4 reads: “He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. [2]
  • Mark 3:13-19 reads: “13 Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. 14 He appointed twelve—designating them apostles[a]—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15 and to have authority to drive out demons. 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

[3]

  • Luke 6:12-16 states, “ 12 One of those days, Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.”

[4]

The Apostle's Walk with JesusEdit

Another side of the Apostle Thomas is revealed to us through events that occurred as he and the others journeyed with Jesus. The Gospel of John gives us insight into Thomas’ personal nature by showing us what he says and how he reacts to situations and events.

  • John 11:1-16 [The Death of Lazarus]

During the time of Lazarus’ death, Jesus asked that they go with Him to see Lazarus. All of the apostles except Thomas objected for fear they would be killed by Christ's opposers. We read in the passage that Thomas' response was, "Let us also go, that we might die with him.” At a later time during His ministry [John 13-14], Jesus tells His Apostles of the death which he must soon suffer before going away. He then tells them that they already know the way to the place to which He is going. Thomas is confused about what Christ means by "the way" and asks Him how can they know where He is going and the way by which to get there. Christ then explains that He is “the way and the life.” Thomas shows skepticism later in this gospel when he doubts Christ’s Resurrection. Christ Himself appears to him and has him to physically touch the wounds in His body.

The passage at John 11:1-16 reads, "1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, 'Lord, the one you love is sick.' 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, 'This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it.' 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. 7Then he said to his disciples, 'Let us go back to Judea.' 8 'But Rabbi,' they said, 'a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?' 9 Jesus answered, 'Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. 10 It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.' 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, 'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.' 12 His disciples replied, 'Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.' 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.' 16 Then Thomas said to the rest of the disciples, 'Let us also go, that we may die with him.'” [5]

  • John 14:1-7 [Jesus' Comforting of His Apostles]

After explaining to His disciples why he must soon be killed, Jesus comforts them by saying that He will go to prepare a place for them after His resurrection. Some are baffled, however, when He tells them that they know where he is going and how to get there.

At John 14:1-7 Jesus says, "1 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.' 5 Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?' 6 Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'" [6]

  • John 20:19-20,24-29 [Jesus Appears to His Disciples and to Thomas]

Scripture informs us that the Lord appeared to His disciples for over forty days following His resurrection from the dead. Thomas was not with the others when Christ first appeared to them, so he doubted their story. Christ then made a second appearance when Thomas was present and told Him to touch His wounds so that he might believe. He mildly scolded Thomas for his skepticism.

The account at John 20:19-20 and 24-29 reads, "19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. the other disciples told him, 'We have seen the Lord. But he said to them, 'Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.'" "26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you!' 27 Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.' 28 Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!' 29 Then Jesus told him, 'Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'"[7]

The Choosing of Matthias in the Upper RoomEdit

The Apostle Thomas was present along with the other disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when it came time to choose an Apostle to take the place of Judas Iscariot. Acts 1 verses 12-14 and verses 23-26 tells how this event came about. The passage reads, “12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” “ 23 So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs." 26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.”

The Outpouring of Holy Spirit at PentecostEdit

Pentecost marks the true begininning of the Church of Jesus Christ, for it was by the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost, that the early Christian community got its strong footing and the impetus to push forward in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ’s original Twelve Apostles, His Seventy Apostles, His mother, the Virgin Mary, and His other faithful followers were all gathered together in the Upper Room. Scripture tells us that the promised Holy Spirit, evidenced by “tongues of fire,” came to rest upon each one, blessing them with all spiritual gifts such as the gifts of healing, prophecy, and the ability to speak in unknown tongues.

After PentecostEdit

Immediately after the first Pentecost, the newly-formed Church began its peaching and healing ministry. This ministry spread rapidly throughout all Jerusalem and Judea, and to all of the surrounding regions.

Not long after, the Apostles were dispersed and the gospel message was preached more extensively throughout the Roman Empire in countries such as Turkey, Syria, Greece, Italy and Africa. It is now believed that the Apostle Thomas was sent to evangelize the Parthians, Medes, and Persians, and that he ultimately reached India, carrying the Faith to the Malabar coast. There is even a large native population which calls itself "Christians of St. Thomas." One source claims that Saint Thomas shed his blood for Christ Jesus when he was speared to death at a place called "Calamine" in India. [8]

Thomas the Apostle’s Veneration and Feast DayEdit

For most eastern and western orthodox churches, the Apostle Thomas' feast day is July 3rd. Anglicans, however, who worship according to one of the classical versions of the Book of Common Prayer (e.g. 1662 English or 1928 American) still celebrate his feast day on December 21st.[9]

For the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Eastern Catholic Churches and the Coptic Orthodox Church, Saint Thomas is remembered each year on "Saint Thomas Sunday", which falls on the Sunday after Easter. In addition, the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches also celebrate his feast day on October 6. For those churches which follow the traditional Julian Calendar, October 6 currently falls on October 19 of the modern Gregorian Calendar.

Saint Thomas is also commemorated along with all of the other apostles on June 30 (July 13), in a feast called "the Synaxis of the Holy Apostles". The Apostle is associated with the "Arabian" Icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God), which is commemorated on September 6 (September 19). July 3rd was the day on which his relics were translated from Mylapore, a place along the coast of the Marina Beach, Chennai in India, to the city of Edessa in Mesopotamia. [10]

New Historical Insights about Saint Thomas’ Writings & MissionEdit

In early Christianity, traditions that honored a specific Apostle existed in specific geographical regions which honored him as its patron saint. The Pauline [for the Apostle Paul] and the Johannine [for the apostle John] traditions are examples of such traditions; and each region has left its own legacy of apostolic writings.[11]

A Thomas tradition, though less comprehended, also existed, and this tradition existed in the region of Syria where the Apostle is known to have visited and preached. Writings associated with the Thomas tradition, namely, the Gospel of Thomas, were rejected during the early formation of Christian orthodoxy; and by the end of the fourth century most of Thomas’ writings had been condemned and destroyed. ["Let none read the gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but of one of Mani's three wicked disciples."?Cyril of Jerusalem, Cathechesis V (4th century)][12]

There is a growing number of scholars who now believe that the Gospel of Thomas – an ancient biblical text discovered over a half century ago in the Egyptian desert – actually dates to the very beginnings of the Christian era and may well have taken first form before any of the four traditional canonical Gospels.

Christ’s Commission to ThomasEdit

This leads us to another well-known text called the “Pistis Sophia.” The "Pistis Sophia", found to be in circulation from around 250-300AD, is called a Gnostic text yet it supports the latest scholarly view that recently discovered Thomas writings were written by the Apostle Thomas. The text does this by showing that Jesus Christ did in fact give Saint Thomas the commission to write down His words.

The "Pistis Sophia" contains the words of one of the Lord’s most devoted followers, Mary Magdalene. In this text, Mary Magdalene speaks [prays] to the Lord Jesus Christ about the special commission which He gave to Thomas, Philip and Matthew. Mary Magdalene says that "three witnesses" were committed by Christ to writing "all of his words" and they were Thomas, along with Philip and Matthew.

A portion of this texts reads:

"Now at this time, my Lord, hear, so that I speak openly, for thou hast said to us 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear:' Concerning the word which thou didst say to Philip: 'Thou and Thomas and Matthew are the three to whom it has been given... to write every word of the Kingdom of the Light, and to bear witness to them'; hear now that I give the interpretation of these words. It is this which thy light-power once prophesied through Moses: 'Through two and three witnesses everything will be established. The three witnesses are Philip and Thomas and Matthew" ( ?Pistis Sophia 1:43).

An early, non-Gnostic tradition may lie behind this statement, which also emphasizes the primacy of the Gospel of Matthew in its Aramaic form, over the other canonical three. [13]

Discovery of the Gospel of ThomasEdit

The best known document by Thomas is the "sayings" gospel, or the “Gospel of Thomas”. This is a non-canonical work which some scholars believe may actually predate the writing of the biblical gospels themselves. The opening line says that the author is "Didymos Judas Thomas" who has been identified with Thomas the Apostle.

This work was discovered in a Coptic translation in 1945 at the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi, near the site of the monastery of Chenoboskion. Once the Coptic text was published, scholars recognized that an earlier Greek translation had been published from fragments of papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus [a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo; also an archaeological site] [14]

During the first few decades after its discovery several voices representing established orthodox biases argued that the Gospel of Thomas (abbreviated, GTh) was a late-second or third century Gnostic forgery. Scholars currently involved in Thomas studies now largely reject that view, though such arguments will still be heard from orthodox apologists and are encountered in some of the earlier publications about Thomas.

Today most students would agree that the “Gospel of Thomas” has opened a new perspective on the first voice of the Christian tradition. Recent studies centered on the “Gospel of Thomas” have led to a stark reappraisal of the forces and events forming "orthodoxy" during the second and third centuries. But more importantly, the “Gospel of Thomas” is awakening interest in a forgotten spiritual legacy of Christian culture. The incipit (or "beginning words") of Thomas invite each of us "who has ears to hear" to join in a unique quest: These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke, and that Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And He said: "Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death."[[15]


The Gospel of Thomas in Coptic and GreekEdit

In 1945, they discovered the “lost” “Gospel of Thomas” at a place in Egpyt called, “Nag Hammadi”. The Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945 made it possible to definitely identify the Oxyrhynchus texts as fragments from a lost Greek edition of the Gospel. This was called “The Greek Oxyrhynchus Fragments”. [16] What is remarkable about this newly-discovered Coptic version is that it bears a very close similarity to the original Greek version of the “Gospel of Thomas”, thus verifying the integrity of this text. The three papyrus fragments of The “Gospel of Thomas” apparently date to between 130 - 250 AD, and each fragment, no doubt, represents a separate unique copy of the Gospel.

The three Oxyrhynchus fragments preserve 20 of the 114 sayings found in the complete Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas. These texts allow careful comparisons to be made between the Coptic text found at Nag Hammadi and the original Greek text found much earlier [The Greek Oxyrhynchus Fragments]. The Gospel was almost certainly written in Greek originall, so the Nag Hammadi version is a Coptic translation of this original Greek text. The reader will note below, the close correlation between the two versions, a fact that proves the textual integrity of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.[17]

Saying 1 [the Prologue]:

A. From the Greek Oxyrhynchus fragments: “These are the [hidden] sayings [that] the living Jesus [sp]oke a[nd Judas who] is also Thomas [recorded.] And he said, "[Whoever finds the interpretat]ion of the[se] sayings will not taste [death]."

B.From the Coptic Nag Hammadi manuscript:

“These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death." Saying 2 (pOxy. 654.5-9)

A. From the Greek Oxyrhnchus fragments:

“[Jesus said,] "Let the one seek[ing] not stop [seeking until] he finds. And when he find[s he will marvel, and mar]veling he will reign, an[d reigning] he will [rest.]”

B From the Coptic Nag Hammadi manuscript: “Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All." Etc., Etc.[18]

Other Writings of the Apostle ThomasEdit

Three important documents from the Thomas tradition that have survived are The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Thomas the Contender, and the Acts of Thomas. The latter two were also recovered in the Nag Hammadi Library. Several copies of the third text, the Acts of Thomas, survived over the centuries in monastic collections.

  • 'Hymn of the Pearl'

Imbedded within the Acts of Thomas we find a passage of a classic Gnostic myth describing the exile and redemption of the soul. The text is known as the "Hymn of the Pearl".

  • 'The Acts of Thomas'

The complete text the Acts of Thomas, is from The Apocryphal New Testament, and is translated by M. R. James. The Acts of Thomas connects the apostle's Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but the Lord appeared to him in a night vision and said, ?Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.? But the Apostle still demurred, so the Lord overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares. The apostle's ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother. [Besides the Acta Thomae there is a different and notably shorter redaction in Ethiopic and Latin.]

  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

There was a widely circulated Infancy Gospel of Thomas written in the later 2nd century [in Syria], which relates the miraculous events and prodigies of Jesus' boyhood. This is the document which tells for the first time the familiar legend of the twelve sparrows which Jesus, at the age of five, fashioned from clay on the Sabbath day, which took wing and flew away.

The earliest manuscript of this work is a sixth century one in Syriac. The gospel was first referred to by Irenaeus. Ron Cameron writes about Irenaeus: "In his citation, Irenaeus first quotes a non-canonical story that circulated about the childhood of Jesus and then goes directly on to quote a passage from the infancy narrative of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:49). Since the Infancy Gospel of Thomas records both of these stories, in relative close proximity to one another, it is possible that the apocryphal writing cited by Irenaeus is, in fact, what is now known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Because of the complexities of the manuscript tradition, however, there is no certainty as to when the stories of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas began to be written down."

  • The "Revelatio Thomae"

The Revelatio Thomae was also condemned as apocryphal in the Degree of Pope Gelasius, and has recently been recovered from various sources in a fragmentary condition (See the full text in the Revue benedictine, 1911, pp. 359-374).

  • The Book of Thomas the Contender (from the Nag Hammadi [Greek] Library Collection)

Though not integrally related to the central Thomas tradition surrounding the Gospel of Thomas, several other ancient - Christian documents claimed authority in the name of Thomas. They are as follows:

  • The Apocalypse of Thomas
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Greek Text A
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Greek Text B
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Latin Text
  • A Compilation of the Thomas Texts

[19]

The Apostle Thomas’ Missionary Activities and MartyrdomEdit

Saint Thomas' Basillica in India

Front view of the San Thome Basilica in Chennai

Saint Thomas in IndiaEdit

Reliable sources give us a clear picture of Saint Thomas' activities in India.[20] [21] One of these sites states that "after the Apostles were dispersed, Saint Thomas went to India. There he served the Lord by preaching and healing those who were sick. He died at a place called Malabar [Meliapour]. The Roman Breviary states that he also preached in Ethiopia, Abyssinia, Persia and Media." [22]

The site also explains that before he died in Malabar [Meliapour], Saint Thomas erected a very large cross. At the foot of this cross was a rock where Saint Thomas, while praying fervently, suffered his martyrdom by a blow from the lance of a pagan priest. This happened, according to the Roman Breviary, at Calamine, which is in fact Malabar [Meliapour], for in the language of the people the word Calurmine means on the rock (mina). The name was given the site in memory of the Apostle’s martyrdom.

They state further that a body of Christians still exists in Malabar who use a form of Syriac for its liturgical language. A certain Cosmas Indicopleustes speaks of the existence of Christians at Male (?Malabar) under a bishop who had been consecrated in Persia. King Alfred the Great, they report, is said [in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle"] to have sent an expedition to establish relations with these Christians of the Far East." [23]


The Malabar region lies along the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula and forms the northern part of present-day Kerala state. Malayalam is the chief language of the region, and the ancestors of today's population have inhabited the region for centuries. The coastal cities of Malabar are very cosmopolitan and have hosted some of the first groups of Christians (now known as Syrian Malabar Nasranis.

Saint Thomas in SyriaEdit

"Judas, who is also called Thomas" (Eusebius, H.E. 13.12) has a role in the legend of king Abgar of Edessa for having sent Thaddaeus to preach in Edessa after the Ascension (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiae 1.13; III.1). In the 4th century, the martyrium erected over his burial place brought pilgrims to Edessa. In the 380’s, Egeria described her visit in a letter she sent to her community of nuns at home (Itineraria Egeriae):

"…we arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of Saint Thomas. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other things that were customary in the holy places were done; we read also some things concerning Saint Thomas himself. The church there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God; and as there was much that I desired to see, it was necessary for me to make a three days' stay there."

The reputed relics of St. Thomas were at Edessa in the fourth century, and there they remained until they were translated to Chios in 1258 and fowarded to Ortona.[24]

Thomas and the Assumption of MaryEdit

According to “The Passing of Mary”, a text attributed to Joseph of Arimathaea, Thomas was the only witness of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The other apostles were miraculously transported to Jerusalem to witness her death. Thomas was left in India, but after her burial he was transported to her tomb, where he witnessed her bodily assumption into heaven, from which she dropped her girdle. In an inversion of the story of Thomas' doubts, the other apostles are skeptical of Thomas' story until they see the empty tomb and the girdle. Thomas' receipt of the girdle is commonly depicted in medieval and pre-Tridentine Renaissance art.[25][26]

Thomas in ArtEdit

A 13th-century Armenian illumination, by Toros Roslin.

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