Published: December 4, 2018
By Karla Klein Albertson
NEW YORK CITY – Armenia stands at the crossroads of archaeological, ecclesiastical and political history, but many might fail to quickly locate it on the world map. The small Eurasian country, along with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, is located on a bridge of land in the South Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas. Russia lies further north, Turkey stretches west toward the Mediterranean, while Iran extends south to the Persian Gulf. Over centuries, the country continually has been subject to cultural forces emanating from massive empires on every side – Romans, Byzantines, Sasanian Persians, Mongols, Ottoman Turks. Yet their distinctive art and religion have survived and remain strong in today’s independent Republic of Armenia and Armenian communities scattered throughout the world.
“Armenia!,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 13, brings together more than 140 exhibits – manuscripts and printed books, architectural elements, reliquaries, liturgical furnishings and textiles – connected with the distinctive practices of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Civilization in traditional Armenian territory dates back to the Bronze Age, but the exhibition focuses on the Christian religious art of Medieval Armenia. The ecclesiastical connection is not surprising in a country which dates its foundation back to the landing of Noah’s Ark on the volcanic peaks of Mount Ararat, which now lies just over the Turkish border to the west.
A scholar could spend a lifetime studying the history and culture of Armenia, and indeed that has been the continuing thread throughout the career of Dr Helen C. Evans, the curator for Byzantine Art in the department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at the Met. She first approached the subject in her doctoral dissertation at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. She participated in “Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts,” a 1994 cataloged exhibition at the Morgan Library, put together by one of her teachers, Dr Thomas F. Mathews, who was also interested in art from that region. Since arriving at the Met in 1991, Evans has organized important exhibitions in her field but always envisioned a more thorough exploration of Armenian art.
In an interview with Antiques and The Arts Weekly, Evans explained, “Since I did my dissertation on Medieval Armenian art, I wanted to do an exhibition on this for many decades. The actual organization of this exhibition began in late 2013 when we started talking with the Armenian government about whether it would be interested in lending works for exhibition in the United States, because it is such a vast distance for people to think of flying their national treasures. The exhibition in the 1990s was manuscripts only – it was excellent for what it covered – but I wanted an exhibition that would show the breadth and the complexity of Armenian art beyond manuscript illumination. I thought we needed to cover even more.”
She continued, “I wanted to bring in architectural elements and reliquaries and textiles – the Armenians dominated the textile trade for seven centuries. They sit on the spot that everyone wished to occupy because they had the passes through the mountains where trade goods were moving, more East to West, but also North to South. And, of course, we include many books. Armenians are most interested in the Book as their holiest object. They do not use icons in the same way as the Orthodox world but venerate the Book, particularly the Gospel.” The curator has focused attention on the country’s culture not only in the exhibition but through the permanent record of the accompanying catalog, Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, edited by Evans. In essays by more than 20 scholars, the volume not only analyzes individual objects on view in the galleries, but also devotes sections to major topics such as “Greater Armenia and the Medieval World” and “Armenians Expand West: The Kingdom of Cilicia.” [N.B.: An Armenian Kingdom existed in Cilicia on the Mediterranean in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century.]
Evans opens the discussion with a chapter on “Armenians and Their Middle Age” where she writes: “Christianity arrived in Armenia at an early date. Two of the apostles of Christ – Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew – are said to have followed routes to the north to Armenian lands seeking converts in the First Century CE. In the early Fourth Century, the Armenian king Tiridates the Great (r 287-circa 330) and his people converted to Christianity, making the Armenians, as Pope Francis has recognized, the first Christian nation.” In discussion, she added, “They have talked to and been involved with other Christian communities throughout their history, but the Apostolic Church remains a unique one. And that community is held together by the fact that Mesrop Mashtots’ at the beginning of the Fifth Century creates an alphabet for them so that they have a language for their own Gospels and their own communication.”
A manuscript page in the exhibition with a passage from Corinthians displays this curvaceous, impenetrable erkat’agir script, on loan from the “Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots’ Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia. Other, more visually-arresting manuscripts are illustrated with colorful portraits of holy figures, wealthy donors, monks and scribes. One of the venerated Gospel Books, completed at the monastery of Gladzor, 1300-1307, depicts in vivid colors a scene of Christ reading in the synagogue to a rapt audience. An illustrated Bible from the same monastery, on loan from the Institute in Yerevan, depicts the Tree of Jesse against a shining gold background. Helen Evans noted, “One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is that we were able to borrow three-fourths of the objects in the show from Armenian institutions that have protected their heritage.” This fact is especially astounding in view of the natural disasters and frequent invasions, including waves of Mongols, that have beset the mountainous region.
Since the exhibition opened in late September, the curator has observed what displays draw the eye of visitors: “They stop at that huge columnar stela, they stop at the gold reliquary in the architectural gallery, and they walk into the Cilician gallery which has all that silver. People respond tremendously to the music, which is very compelling. When you go through the gallery, which has the illuminated large image of the church at Lake Sevan in the middle of the room, we have music coming from it – a portion of the Armenian liturgy – and we put music and someone reciting the Armenian alphabet on the audio guide. For all the shows I’ve done at the Met, people largely don’t know about their language, their history, their scholars, so we try to make it clear that these are people who not only do beautiful art but also have music, literature and scholarship. We represent a number of people in the exhibition – portraits of rulers, artists, merchants – to give you a sense that these were real people.”
The exhibition and catalog are enhanced by the stunning photographs of Armenian religious architecture and the surrounding rugged landscape taken by Hrair Hawk Khatcherian and Lilit Khachatryan. Furthermore, visitors can examine architectural fragments first hand in a gallery devoted to works in carved stone. Show stoppers are the massive khachkars or commemorative cross stones, often funded by a wealthy medieval donor. A basalt cross within an elaborately ornamented frame has symbols of the four Gospels at the base and stands 6 feet high. At the entrance to the exhibition stands the columnar stela mentioned above. Dating to Fourth-Fifth Century, in the earliest years of Armenian Christianity, the column comes from the Monastery of Kharaba, southern slope of Aragats, Ashtarak. The four sides are carved with figures – on one, the Virgin is enthroned with the Christ child, who holds a Gospel Book.
When asked what she hopes the exhibition will accomplish, Evans responded: “When somebody does a PhD in early Christian studies in future generations, I hope they will include Armenia. Through all the exhibitions I have done, I have wanted visitors to recognize the complexity of the East Christian world to the same degree that we recognize the complexity of the West Christian world and Roman Catholicism. To me, the Armenia show looks at people who are on the Eastern edge of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire after that – even the Eastern edge of the Ottoman Empire. These interactions create art that is incredibly impressive. They are, as a people, a facilitator of the movement of ideas – East to West and West to East.”
Does she have favorites among the objects on display? “Everything we put in the exhibition was picked to make a point. So, I’m excited for some specific reason in each and every object. Now I’m interested in what objects people touring the exhibition respond to. I find the stela at the beginning to be such a powerful statement of a commitment to a religion which was not yet, in that world, a particularly acceptable religion. It was legalized in 312 CE, but the Roman Empire does not become Christian until about 380 CE. During that time, there was an effort to return to the Classical gods in the West and, of course, to the East the gods were Zoroastrians. Willingness to take on a religion not accepted by the great powers on either side of them is an incredibly impressive act.”
Both loans and financial support for the project have come from the worldwide Armenian community. In one of her catalog essays, Helen Evans writes: “… Armenians created powerful realms and experienced vast devastation. Armenians served other states, often as soldiers and, at times, as rulers. Yet, while interacting with others, they retained their own identity. As a version of a popular text by the Twentieth Century Armenian American author William Saroyan says, ‘when two of them [Armenians] meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.'”
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