As the Director of The British Museum, Neil MacGregor recently affirmed “ . . . every civilization has its own narrative . . . ” Some of these narratives as we well know are interrupted by conquest, war, destruction, or imperialism. Other narratives are regularly highlighted, exhibited, or discussed while others are rarely spoken of let alone seen. Major or minor, these narratives of civilizations are worth telling and perhaps more importantly are best “told” through images.
In 2007, the Musée du Louvre mounted its first ever exhibition dedicated to the theme of otherwise rarely exhibited Armenian art. International Herald Tribune art reviewer Souren Melikian noted that “What mostly survives is the art of religion, the hard-cord to which the persecuted cling and carry away if portable.” So the narrative of Armenian civilization is one which in its telling must combine art and religion as fundamental expressions of its history. To that end, the exhibition entitled Armenia sacra was an informative presentation and a visually stunning defense of my argument that the arts are foundational historical documents equitable to any printed texts.
For those of us who know little of the history of Armenia, this exhibition provided a context for this culture told through visual evidence ranging from monumental katchkars —upright stone slabs carved with cross-centered lace patterns— and carved capital to fascinating manuscript illuminations and reliquaries to liturgical objects. The story these works relate is one of a religious and cultural identity constantly plagued by the threat of assimilation, if not annihilation, by the “conquering culture.” Rather, Armenia survived both by clinging to its national identity which was enwrapped in its art and religion, and by assimilating sufficient elements of its varied conquering cultures to create the aura of cultural fusion.
Divided into six major sections ranging from the “Conversion to Christianity and Development of the Alphabet” to “Between the Persian and Ottoman Empires,” Armenia sacra unfolds its visual narration with the establishment of Armenia as the first Christian nation following the conversion of King Tiridates III by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. In 313, this same ruler declared Christianity the state religion almost a generation before Byzantium. Caught between the Persian and Roman Empires, thereby the Persian and Latin cultures and languages, Armenia—its language, culture, and peoples—began its place as a bridge between East and West. The mysterious origins of the Armenian language while steeped in a historical merger of Persian and Latin were Christianized when the monk Mesrop Mashtots “invented” the Armenian alphabet in the 5th century. Identified as a gift from God, this alphabet enabled the translation of the Bible into Armenian and the establishment of an Armenian liturgy which evolved from Greek and Syriac traditions. So national identity, cultural identity, and religious identity merged into one privileged reality which was sustained throughout the ensuing centuries of political and military confrontations between Eastern and Western Empires.
The 200 works on display range from the more than 30 khatchkars presented on the moats of the Medieval Louvre to the illuminated manuscripts and liturgical objects presented in the six historical sections. Visually these works argue for the distinctive craftsmanship and skill of Armenian artists, particularly in their ability to retain their “Armenian-ness” as they selected desirable aesthetic elements from the dominant Mediterranean and Persian artists. For example, the geometric designs and calligraphic patterns usurped from Islamic art are evident in the carved capital and intricate designs of medieval illuminated manuscripts such as the Gospel of Queen Mlkeh of Van or the Etchmiadzin Gospel. Artistic and cultural syncretism was taken to new heights as the history of Armenia unfolds before our eyes in Armenia sacra. Perhaps Solomon was right when he opined that “there is nothing new under the sun” as the little known history narrated through this exhibition reveals not simply the practice of aesthetic fusion but more significantly the initiation of a nascent globalization.
Armenia sacra was on view at the Musée du Louvre from 21 February through 21 May 2007. Information on both the exhibition and the exhibition catalogue can be accessed at here.
To access images of the works displayed in Armenia sacra
Dr. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is a former Adjunct Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. She currently is a Visiting Professor in the Catholic Studies Program.