The Making of ‘The Missing Pages’

The Missing Pages
The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript From Genocide to Justice
Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh
2019
436 pp. Stanford University Press

The story of my new book The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript from Genocide to Justice starts on June 1, 2010. That day, I read the news that the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America had sued the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, seeking the return of eight illuminated pages from a medieval Gospels that had been sundered and stolen during the Armenian Genocide. It resonated with me in many ways. I am an art historian, I had been a Getty Fellow, and the Armenian Genocide is part of my history. Within a month, I submitted an op-ed to The Los Angeles Times. Not only did they publish it, the editor encouraged me to “tell the story.” As I continued to research the pages at the Getty and their parent manuscript—the Zeytun Gospels—it became clear that not only did the history of this particular manuscript coincide with some crucial episodes in Armenian and Middle Eastern history, but it also intersected with central issues in art history today. The responses to my op-ed suggested that there was tremendous interest in the questions raised by the lawsuit. 

I began researching the history of the Zeytun Gospels. I examined the eight illuminated pages at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which are Canon Tables as well as the main manuscript that is preserved today at the Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan; I pored over historical sources, documents and legal materials. Toros Roslin, the illuminator of the Zeytun Gospels, is the most celebrated medieval Armenian artist, and great art historians have already researched his work, his artistic style, his place in the tradition of Armenian and Byzantine art. I wanted to approach the story of this extraordinary manuscript in a new way.

I wanted to approach the story of this extraordinary manuscript in a new way.

My research took me to the places the Zeytun Gospels and its missing pages had traveled. I began at the ruins of Hromkla (Rumkale in present-day Turkey), the castle on the Euphrates where Toros Roslin had illuminated the Zeytun Gospels for his patron, the great Catholicos Constantine I in 1256. I spent time in Zeytun, the mountain town that was the last home of the Gospels on the eve of the Armenian Genocide and after which the manuscript is named, as well as Marash, the city where the manuscript spent the years of the genocide. In the book, each chapter focuses on a place where the manuscript spent time or that was critical in its history. I wanted to convey to readers how people in Zeytun saw the Gospels – not as a beautiful work of art, but rather as a sacred object of great power that protected their town from enemies. I retraced the pages’ journey, drawing detailed descriptions of how the places looked when the pages were there and what they are like now. I constantly came across reminders of the genocide that sent the Armenian community – and the illuminated pages – around the globe.

The Canon Tables arrived in the United States with the Atamian family of Marash, who came through Ellis Island in 1923 and settled in Watertown, Massachusetts. I was honored to meet members of the Atamian family and listen to their stories. By 1994, scholars identified the Canon Tables as the work of Toros Roslin; their value as works of art was recognized. Those eight pages went from being mysterious family heirlooms to artistic and religious treasures worthy of serious study and inclusion in major museum collections. They also became worth a lot of money. The Getty Museum purchased them to add to their remarkable collection of medieval art. The main manuscript, halfway across the world, traveled its own path that eventually took it to Yerevan, Armenia.

The final chapter of the book is set in Los Angeles and relates the Armenian Genocide restitution movement through the courts in California. In this movement, Western Prelacy v. Getty was the first – and so far only – litigation that focused on a work of art. In 2015, the parties reached a settlement. The Getty acknowledged the Armenian Church’s historical ownership of the pages, and the church donated the pages to the Getty Museum. The museum changed the provenance citation of the pages to “gift of The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, by agreement.” It was a solution not very different than what I had suggested in my op-ed in 2010. The ownership is acknowledged, the pages are preserved, and they are at times available to the public to view in Los Angeles, where as many as 500,000 people of Armenian extraction live.

In the book, I reconstructed the biography of the manuscript through its 700 years of life. But I was also interested in the stories of people who had come in contact with them and how that affected and changed them. The biggest discovery for me was how many people tried to save art during the cataclysmic time of the Genocide, how they latched onto special objects and kept them through multiple migrations. It showed me how central art is to resilience.

I was fortunate to work with a brilliant editor, Kate Wahl, the Editor-in-Chief at Stanford University Press. We both felt The Missing Pages would be a story with broad appeal, an exciting and moving journey through the history of the pages, people and places. The Missing Pages was the result… many drafts later.

I have been interested in questions about cultural heritage, the destruction of culture and the ethics of museum collection and display for a long time. These have all become vital public debates in the last decade. The Missing Pages is the specific story of a particular object that has a larger significance and universal resonance. The book touches on many kinds of broad issues: medieval debates on the significance of religious imagery, but also the place of sacred manuscripts in the religious life of Ottoman Armenians on the eve of the Genocide, the complexities of art litigation and the debates over reparations.

I have been tremendously encouraged by and grateful for the responses the book has received thus far – from the press, academic colleagues, museum professionals, attorneys and most of all from members of the public. It was fantastic to see the New York Times Books section feature it as “New and Noteworthy..”  For the last few months, people have been coming up to me at lectures and telling me extraordinary stories of heirlooms and works of art that survived the genocide along with their families. I am reminded of the critical role objects, especially religious objects, play in the mediation of identity, what art can teach us, not only about destruction, but about resilience. Like the story of the Zeytun Gospels, there are other extraordinary stories waiting to be told, about the centrality of art to genocide, but also to survival, and that persuasively make the case for a human right to art.

Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh is an art history professor at the University of California, Davis. She is the award-winning author of The Image of an Ottoman City: Architecture in Aleppo (2004). Her writing has also appeared in the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Her new book, The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice, was published in February by Stanford University Press.
Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh

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1 Comment

  1. Explain to me where is the honor of meeting the Atamian family who sold these sacred and priceless manuscripts for profit.
    The honorable thing for them to do was to take the pages to the Madenataran in Yerevan and place them in the gospel book where they belong.

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