“Armenian art is not something isolated. It is woven into a global network, and needs to be understood for what makes it specifically Armenian,” Dr. Helen Evans said to an enthusiastic crowd of close to 100 on the evening of June 7, at the Armenian Diocesan Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center. “It is also part of the world’s art of global significance,” Dr. Evans, the distinguished Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and acclaimed scholar of Armenian art, added.
The “Armenia” exhibition, organized by Evans, will open on Sept. 22, on the occasion of the 27th anniversary of Armenia’s re-independence, and run through Jan. 13, 2019, at the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, the newly elected Primate of the Armenian Diocese (Eastern) and longtime Director of the Zohrab Information Center, introduced Evans, and pointed out that the scholar had previously co-curated the Morgan Library and Museum’s 1994 exhibition, “Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts.” As the Nikit and Eleanora Ordjanian Visiting Professor of Armenian Studies, he said, Evans has taught art courses at Columbia University, and has published numerous articles on Armenian subjects.
Evans has been especially instrumental in displaying major works of Armenian art at the Metropolitan, including treasures on permanent view in the medieval galleries. She was also responsible for bringing to the Metropolitan the huge, 1,000 pound 12th century khatchkar (cross-stone) from the Lori province for which she traveled to Armenia with Metropolitan Museum Conservator Jack Soultanian, on one of her many trips there. It remains on renewed loan at the Metropolitan.
Identifier of a Significant People
Using color slides to accompany her remarks, she said that this must-see exhibition at the Metropolitan is “an opportunity to show Armenian art as an identifier of a significant people, and an important element of the world’s art.”
Included in this exhibition—the first of this monumental scale at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are 140 opulent gilded reliquaries, richly illuminated manuscripts, rare textiles, liturgical furnishings made of precious materials, khatchkars, church models, and printed books. These all present present Armenia’s distinctive imagery in the homeland and other major Armenian locations—from the Kingdom of Cilicia on the Mediterranean to New Julfa in Safavid Persia.
“The way we are presenting art is showing how Armenians with their conversion to Christianity, created a visual identity that is incredibly compelling and goes through a variety of styles in the millennium we are covering. At the same time, it always has the element that ties Armenians together,” Evans remarked.
The time period includes opening with the conversion of Armenia to Christianity—the beginning of the fourth century, and will conclude with the end of the Middle Ages, when Armenian books become readily available in the Middle East. “We wanted a narrative,” she said.
The show will focus on four artists, displaying several works by each of them “so people will think of them as we think of Michelangelo in Italy.” They include T’oros Roslin, Sargis Pidzak, Toros Taronatsi, and Hakob of Julfa, who worked in the Armenian homeland, the Kingdom of Cilicia, and New Julfa.
Significant Relationship of Trade Routes
The locations show Armenians as they moved around the globe on the trade routes, which happened before the Christian era and after the time frame, which will be on display, she revealed. It starts in Greater Armenia (the conversion site), which is the Republic of Armenia today, and out to the West (Kingdom of Cilicia), then to Crimea and Italy, and back to Greater Armenia in the Middle Ages where Armenians were devastated in many ways by different invaders.
“Armenians controlled vast amounts of Mongol trade routes which are seen in the reliquaries donated by people with vast wealth,” Dr. Evans related. “There were Armenian merchants all over Europe. They controlled the internal and external textile trade of India. Most spectacular are the sculpture reliquaries, and manuscripts, protected in New Julfa in the 17th century, with their elaborate bindings.”
Armenians were not converted to Christianity from the religions of the classical world. “What made Armenians respond to Christianity when it was not yet a done deal?” she asked. “ For them, Christ is Christ, the Virgin is the Virgin. In the early church, apostolic lines were incredibly important. Armenians had their own direct connection to an apostle. It was a complex weaving together.”
The other early church to convert was Ethiopia, she stated. “Armenia controlled the trade routes coming out of China and Central Asia which came through Armenia to reach Constantinople and the West. Both nations converted very early, before the Roman Empire became officially Christian.”
“I want at the end of the show for non-Armenians to be very impressed by Armenian art, and for Armenians to be proud of the show,” Dr. Evan declared with her usual enthusiasm and passion. “This has been an idea in progress for me ever since I did my PhD dissertation on the manuscripts of Cilicia at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts,” she revealed with an ear-to-ear smile.
Following a brief question and answer period, an animated discussion with Evans and the attendees continued at the reception.
More than half of the works in the “Armenia” exhibition to be displayed are on loan from Armenia, including Etchmiadzin, the Matenadaran Institute, and the National History Museum. Treasures have been sent from the See of Cilicia, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice. Selected works from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Portugal, as well as the Armenian Diocese (Eastern), the Armenian Museum in Boston, and the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum in Southfield, Mich. have also been lent.
The exhibition has been made possible by The Hagop Kevorkian Fund, with additional support provided by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the Giorgi Family Foundation, the Karagheusian Foundation, the Nazar and Artemis Nazarian Family, the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts, the Strauch Kulhanjian Family and the Paros Foundation, Aso O. Tavitian, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Educational programs accompanying the exhibition will include an international symposium, lectures, concerts, a website, a blog, and group tours of the exhibition. A richly illustrated catalog will be published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press.