The Metropolitan Museum of Art gives the blockbuster treatment to Armenia, the oldest Christian country in the world.
By Jason Farago
They were mostly young people who came out in the streets of Armenia this past spring, waving balloons of red, orange and blue. They were fed up with their ineffectual government, and on their smartphones they watched the progress of an opposition leader, the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, as he walked in protest across central Armenia. When he arrived in Yerevan, the capital of this former Soviet republic, the crowds sang, shouted and swore to go on strike. Less than six weeks later, Mr. Pashinyan was named interim prime minister of Armenia, ushered into office on the shoulders of the extraordinary, nonviolent “velvet revolution.”
Armenia is a country with so much history it can overwhelm you. This spring we learned its future might be as eventful as its past, which makes it a timely moment for “Armenia!,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eye-opening appraisal of the art, manuscripts, textiles and religious artifacts of a nation that is still adding surprising chapters to its dramatic history.
Mr. Pashinyan attended the opening last month. There was no sign, alas, of Kim Kardashian, our most famous Armenian-American, but His Holiness Karekin II, the catholicos (or supreme patriarch) of the Armenian church, was also spotted in the galleries; the country was the first to make Christianity its official religion, and this exhibition, packed with weighty stone crosses and richly illuminated gospels, is a testament to the centrality of the church to Armenian cultural identity. No museum has ever mounted such a large exhibition of Armenian art, and most of the 140 objects here come from museum collections and churches in Armenia and rarely travel.
“Armenia!” has been organized by Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator of Byzantine art, and focuses specifically on the art and history of the country’s medieval period. It is not, despite the exclamation point in its title, an exhibition that favors razzle-dazzle. In fact, “Armenia!” is a rather bookish sort of blockbuster, concentrating heavily on illuminated manuscripts, and presented in low lighting to protect the gospels and romances on view. There is some ecclesiastical flash, in the form of bejeweled crucifixes and gold-plated censers, but this is primarily an exhibition of book illustration, unlike any other medieval manuscript show you’re likely to see.
Armenia had a long middle age, extending from the early fourth century, when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted the king, Tiridates III, to Christianity — an event commemorated at the opening of this show by a stela of porous stone, carved with portraits of the two men — until the late 16th century, when printed books made their first appearance. This mountainous region was a crossroads of influences from east and west, but Armenian art scrambles simple understandings of “Europe” and “Asia,” exhibiting a stylistic cosmopolitanism even as it used Christian identity to define itself within the world of Islam.
Armenian book artists were not anonymous; they signed their names, had their own styles, and took risks. One volume here, flamboyantly illuminated by Sargis Pidzak in 1331, is open to a picture of a priest praying before St. Matthew in a field of gold leaf, while initial letters of the Gospels dance with the angels. (Note the pointy black hood worn by the kneeling priest: this distinctly Armenian clerical garb is still worn today.) A Bible from the later medieval period, illuminated by an artist named Hakob, depicts God as a ruddy-faced, goggle-eyed young man, as if in awe at his own creation. In a 16th-century manuscript relating the life of Alexander the Great, done in Rome by an Armenian bishop called Zak‘ariay of Gnunik‘, the Macedonian king’s ship is swallowed by an enormous brown crab, hooking the sails with its pincers as its mouth gapes open.
The Bibles and ritual books here are testament to a relatively literate medieval society, one with its own Christian identity, and one that used (and still uses) its own involute alphabet, developed in 405 by the cleric and scholar now known as St. Mesrop Mashtots‘. This new alphabet, with its arcing capital letters, was the key to the conversion of Armenian society into a Christian society, since religious services could now be conducted in the vernacular. A densely lettered, unspaced sheet of parchment here, whose translation of the Book of Corinthians could date from as early as the fifth century, is one of more than a dozen objects on loan to the Met from the Matenadaran Mesrop Mashtots‘ Institute.
There’s more than manuscripts. Beautifully woven vestments and altar frontals affirm that Armenian believers saw as much beauty in services as in the scriptoria. Reliquaries in the form of St. Gregory’s right arm were popular, and one silver, gem-studded specimen here is said to contain the remains of his last known male descendant. Gold earrings with dangling pendants shaped like crescent moons and birds, dating to the 11th century, are a rare example of secular material here, and their filigreed panels reflect the influence of neighboring Iran.
Perhaps the most distinctive artworks of the Armenian Middle Ages are the khachkars, or cross-stones, found across the Southern Caucasus. These slabs of tuff, basalt or dolomite are carved with highly decorative crosses, and their elaborate patterns suggest the influence of Islamic culture even as they attest to an unshakable Christian faith.
By the end of the 17th century, when Armenian power had flourished along new trade routes, an Italian aristocrat living in Constantinople received a gift: a panoramic map of the world of Armenian influence. Known as the Tabula Chorographica Armenica, this 12-foot painted map includes nearly 800 sites of Armenian Christian worship, stretching past the Caucasus to Jerusalem and Iran. In one corner the bearded St. Gregory destroys idols in an Ottoman town, while laymen and clergy, painted in a style more Persian than European (softer features, finer lines), chat amiably outside Etchmiadzin Cathedral, the Armenian equivalent of the Vatican. The peaks of Mount Ararat, the landing place, according to the Bible, of Noah’s ark, are breasts of solid green.
This boggling showstopper of a map was not meant for navigation, and the elite merchants who gazed on it would have appreciated its expression of the depth of Armenian trade routes in the new early modern age. To modern eyes at the Met, it has other overtones: its breadth recalls the extent of the contemporary Armenian diaspora, and its numerous churches in Ottoman territory portend the genocide to come during World War I.
Armenians, as this great show attests, have long been at the mercy of outside forces, and the beauty of this show is tinged with conquest and subjection. But the young revolutionaries who marched and sang in Yerevan this spring — such a rare gleam of hope in this global age of authoritarianism — knew that the manuscript of Armenian history is still being written.