The Met puts the splendor of medieval Armenian art on display.
The Armenian people originated in the highlands around the base of Mt. Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is believed to have come to rest after the flood. Since then, they have spread across the globe as empire-builders, as traders, and most recently as émigrés and refugees. A people of great talents and tribulations, the Armenians have distinguished themselves in the field of art as creators and patrons alike. Thanks in part to the generosity of lenders such as the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Portugal, the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum in Michigan, the Armenian Museum of America in Boston, and various dioceses of the Armenian Church, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on view from September 22–January 13, 2019, will reveal the riches of medieval Armenian art. Titled simply “Armenia!”, the show justifies the exclamation point with the sheer exuberance and sumptuousness of the works on display. Viewers with little or no idea of Armenian history and culture will come away with vastly increased knowledge and appreciation.
More than 140 precious objects will be on view—illuminated manuscripts and printed books, reliquaries, liturgical furnishings, and architectural models—testifying to the cultural flowering of Armenia from the time of its conversion to Christianity in the 4th century through the 17th century. The exhibition was organized by Helen C. Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art at the Met, with the support of C. Griffith Mann, the Michel David-Weill Curator in Charge, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, assisted by Research Assistant Constance Alchermes.
Armenia was the first nation to convert to Christianity, in the year 301, but before that, Armenians followed several religions—the cult of the fertility goddess Anahit, Zoroastrianism imported from Persia, and the pantheon of Rome. Located at a crossroads of culture and trade, Armenia was influenced artistically by Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire to the west and by pre-Islamic and Islamic Persia to the east. During part of the medieval period, Armenia was under foreign domination, most notably by the Mongols and the Seljuk Turks. At other times, Armenians not only ruled their own land but established a realm outside it—the Kingdom of Cilicia on the southeastern coast of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), from 1198–1375. In later centuries, Armenians conquered not by force of arms but by trade, establishing lucrative routes than spanned from the Philippines to Holland. In the 17th century, the Armenian expatriate community of New Julfa within the Persian city of Isfahan became the last center of the medieval Armenian tradition of art.
The beginning of the Armenian Middle Ages coincides more or less with the invention of the Armenian alphabet by the theologian, linguist, and hymnologist Mesrop Mashtots in the year 405. Some of the most eloquent objects on view at the Met are illuminated manuscript pages in which the graceful script is surrounded and augmented by jewel-like, glowingly colored illustrations of sacred and secular scenes. A page from the Second Prince Vasak Gospel Book (1268–85) shows a purple-clad donor sitting in a purple pavilion, accompanied by his sons and receiving the blessing of the Holy Virgin, who is depicted in a style influenced by Western art. That is not surprising, considering that the manuscript comes from Cilicia, the westernmost outpost of Armenian power. Another very striking page in the exhibition, on a secular theme, dates from 1538–44 and was made by Bishop Zak’ariay of Gnunik’ while on a trip to Rome. It depicts a scene from the Alexander Romance, a 3rd-century Greek collection of mostly fanciful stories about Alexander the Great. The illustration on folios 90–91 shows Alexander’s ship being swallowed by a giant crab that grasps it in its claws. In a separate image off to the right, Alexander is shown leading a donkey, as two Greek-speaking birds fly overhead, telling him to turn back from this land which belongs only to God.
Narrative images also appear on Armenian textiles. An embroidered cloth used to decorate the front of an altar (known as an altar frontal), made in New Julfa in 1741, depicts the dream of Saint Gregory, in which Jesus Christ descends to earth in the city of Vagharshapat and founds the cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, which is the seat of the Armenian pontificate to this day. Surrounded by a red border with gilt-thread floral patterns and Armenian script, the scene take place against a deep blue background suggesting the night sky. Jesus, flanked by angels, rides a cloud that hovers above the ornate, golden cathedral, while below to the left stands King Tiridates the Great, who made Christianity the national religion. The overall atmosphere of this breathtaking textile is very similar to that of Persian art.
Testifying to the importance of sacred architecture in Armenian visual culture is a group of small stone models of churches that are on view in the Met show. Usually carved from a single piece of tuff, these models fit into what the exhibition catalogue calls “a robust tradition of architectural miniaturization in the South Caucasus.” These models, around two feet or less in height, were often incorporated in bas-relief friezes that decorated the interiors of churches.
Among the other kinds of ecclesiastical objects on view in “Armenia!”, a notable example is an arm-shaped reliquary of Saint Nicholas made of silver with parcel-gilt silver sheet and gemstones, from Cilicia, dated to 1315. The realistic arm-and-hand form of the reliquary, which originated in Western Europe, testifies to the enthusiasm for the Latin world among the Cilician elite, which went so far as to bring about a short-lived union between the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is extremely detailed and should satisfy both lay readers and scholars. One feature that is particularly appealing is the selection of gorgeous photographs of Armenian architecture amid the mountainous landscape, made by the Armenian-Canadian photographer Hrair Hawk Khatcherian and his assistant Lilit Khachatryan.
By John Dorfman