Encountering Beautiful, Sacred Armenia

Reliquary cross | Metropolitan Museum of Art
Reliquary cross | Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
Gallery 199
Through January 13, 2019

Review by Pamela A. Lewis

Mount Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark at the end of the Great Flood, is part of the historical homeland of Armenia on the edge of the South Caucasus mountain range. Armenia became the first Christian nation in the fourth century, and through its faith and language, as well as interactions with peoples from surrounding lands and on trade routes, it cultivated a strong national and cultural identity during the long medieval era.

The Met’s Armenia! is the first major exhibition to explore the impressive artistic and cultural achievements of this little-known country and culture, dating from the fourth to the 17th centuries. The show includes 140 objects, including reliquaries, beautifully illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, cross stones (khachkars), and precious liturgical furnishings.

Despite their complex and often tumultuous history, Armenians created and maintained unique works of visual art that powerfully expressed their faith. Almost all of these works, representing the cultural heritage of Armenia, are on loan from major Armenian collections, and are shown in the United States for the first time; some have not traveled abroad for centuries.

Gold jewelry excavated in important sites, such as from the ruins of the patriarchate in Dvin (the capital of the Armenian Arsacid kings), gives a strong sense of Armenian citizens’ wealth and artistic sophistication, while also reflecting the tastes and lifestyles of Iraqi and Iranian populations to the east. Designs of earrings, necklaces, and bracelets reveal the interactions of Dvin on the trade routes west to the Mediterranean.

Architectural features, such as capitals, often depicting biblical figures, refer to the Armenians’ familiarity with the Greco-Roman world, while reflecting their strong Christian identity. A capital with Virgin and Child, discovered at Dvin, shows dramatically presented figures that still, despite many centuries, have the power to inspire reverence. A pair of bowls, also from Dvin, are examples of quotidian items that contrast with their surrounding and more opulent creations.

Alongside the production of jewelry and ceramics, Armenian architecture flourished in the early medieval period under rival kingdoms. Monarchs established churches in their capitals and erected extensive walls as a show of power along trade routes east and west. The gables of these attractive churches were surmounted by smaller models that reflected the design of the structures they adorned. Donors holding these small models were often represented in relief carvings on the churches’ exterior walls. The intact the fifth to seventh century model from the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, with its distinctive furrowed conical roof, is included in the show.

Khachkarsare among the show’s heavy hitters. Originally emblems of salvation for the living and the dead, their meaning grew by the 12th century as they were used to commemorate military victories, important sites, and church construction. Also used as Christian grave markers (usually under direct or indirect Muslim rule) khachkars represent the lasting — and defiant — evidence of Armenians’ commitment to their faith. Several examples of this distinctively Armenian art form, distinguished by exquisite lacelike carving typical of the 13th and 14th centuries, are in the exhibition.

In addition to the exceptional gilded manuscripts commissioned from scriptoria in the kingdom of Cilicia, the exhibition’s reliquaries, from Cilicia and Etchmiadzin, are extraordinary objects in which artistry and the sacred meet. Arm reliquaries, which originated in the Latin West, became highly venerated by Armenians. A notable example is a reliquary cross fashioned from gilded silver, filigree, and assorted precious and semiprecious stones, containing relics of St. John the Baptist; the imposing arm reliquary of St. Nicholas, created in 1315 and made of silver, twisted filigree, and gemstones, is the oldest such object to survive from Cilicia.

The exhibition also comprises a variety of liturgical objects, such as crosses in many materials and styles, censers, and richly illuminated Gospel books. Many of these items come from the monastery of Sevan, which was established in the ninth century. Pious believers often donated such items to monasteries, and also gave silver and gilded containers to house relics, ranging from instruments of the Passion, like the Holy Lance to items connected to important Armenians.

An unusual Gospel Book from the 14th century depicts the presentation in the Temple, in which Christ stands between his kneeling parents. There is minimal reference to the locale, and another scene on the opposite page depicting the Massacre of the Innocents is unfinished. Despite the sparse details of the former image and the incompletion of the latter, both are compelling representations of their respective stories.

Other outstanding objects include a foldable wood and leather liturgical book stand (or Grakal) used to hold a lectionary. Practical and beautifully carved with important religious and donor family symbols, this furnishing gives testimony to the excellence of Armenian wood carving.

On an opposite wall, the Grakal is represented on a brightly colored Gospel book page; it shows Christ reading in the synagogue and standing at the same type of bookstand. A pair of 17th-century gilded silver hanging censers (Burvars) from Cilicia or Constantinople are examples of intricate metal work at its height, resulting in a hybrid style mixing Ottoman and Western European decoration reminiscent of late Gothic art.

Textiles are also given their due in Armenia! by way of the stunning Liturgical Curtain (used to close off the apse during specific moments in the liturgical service), which shows particular pilgrimage stops important to Armenians, as well as other sacred Christian sites and figures carrying out various liturgical actions. The size and materials of a magnificent velvet cope, dating from the 17th century, are intended to inspire awe (if not outright fear), its decorative elements combining Armenian holy figures and the Virgin and an angel.

There is much to look at in this exhibition, and its organizers were clearly intent on acquainting visitors with this region and its contributions to religious art. Given its scope, I recommend making more than one visit. As is customary with Metropolitan Museum shows, the information is extremely thorough, and the use of technology by way of oversized projections of parts of Armenia imparts a you-are-there authenticity. All of this serves to demystify what has been a vibrant and adaptable country. Armenia! is an encounter with the beautiful and the sacred. It will not disappoint.

Pamela A. Lewis writes for The Episcopal New Yorker and Episcopal Journal.


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