Dr. Helen Evans Describes Armenian Art as the Voice of a People

By Florence Avakian

The world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is working with the Armenian government to mount an exhibition of Armenian art in the next few years. This welcome announcement by Dr. Helen Evans greeted attendees at a fascinating lecture on Thursday, April 30, entitled, “Armenian Art: Voice of a People,” sponsored by the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center at the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern).

In his introduction of Dr. Evans, the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, director of the Zohrab Center, called her the pioneer in establishing the first galleries of Byzantine art at the Metropolitan Museum. Dr. Evans—the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—is a specialist in early Christian, Byzantine and Armenian art, and has lectured worldwide. She traveled to Armenia to select and make arrangements for the loan of the historic khatchkar from the Lori-berd region, now on display at the museum.

A Distinctive Visual Tradition

“Armenian art is the distinctive visual tradition of the Armenian people over the centuries, in regions extending from the Greater Armenian homeland to prospering communities across the globe,” said the scholar in a provocative talk, accompanied by extensive slides of artifacts. She explored the theme of what makes a work “Armenian” by looking at key works of art during several historical periods, and what a possible future exhibition of Armenian art would display at the Metropolitan Museum.

Early Armenian illuminations, including those in the 1891 Etchmiadzin Gospel, were at one time attributed to Syrian artists, she noted. It was not until 1933, that the eminent Armenian scholar Sirarpie Der Nersessian proved that these magnificent works of art in the Etchmiadzin Gospel were by Armenian artists. And it would not be until 1980 that Professor Thomas Mathews of New York University would be able to delineate the meaning of several sixth or seventh-century pieces as being evidence of the Armenian tradition of Christianity.

This journey of understanding Armenian art evolved through the work of American scholars pursuing the evolution of Armenian Christianity as a “powerful force,” especially on trade routes from Amsterdam to China, Egypt to the Caucasus, and Madras to Russia,” revealed the speaker. “We place the art within the Armenian kingdoms, dynasties, rulers, monasteries, scriptoria, and artists that created the works.”

Dr. Evans considered several consequential developments in the Armenian people’s history as the first Christian nation. She noted that Saints Thaddeus and Bartholomew, who reputedly converted the Armenians in the first century, would have followed the trade routes from Jerusalem through Syria and Cappadocia to Armenia. The arm reliquary of St. Thaddeus, now in Etchmiadzin, is evidence of this tradition. Early stele and later manuscripts of the fourth-century conversion of King Drtad by St. Gregory the Illuminator all established Armenia as the first Christian nation.

Also playing an important role was the creation of the Armenian alphabet by Mesrob Mashdots, about one century after the conversion of King Drtad. Additionally, the translation of the gospels into Armenian took place when the Sasanians forced Rome to recognize Armenia within the Sasanian sphere of influence, and when Vartan Mamigonian fought for Armenians to follow their Christian faith despite the Sasanian revival of Zoroastrianism which was rejected by the Armenians, and eventually by the Sasanian priest kings.

Armenian architecture is further evidence of the importance of the Armenian faith; Dr. Evans noted two monumental crosses and two capitals from Dvin (the site of the sixth-century council where the Armenian Church declared its independence from the Western Christian centers of Constantinople and Rome) as well as the monumental church of Zvartnots dedicated to St. Gregory, which she characterized as a “counterargument” to Byzantine control.

The artistic connection of another state on the Byzantine trade route—Ethiopia, which had converted to Christianity in 330—found in medieval Armenian texts and Ethiopian manuscripts, shows the “early foundations of Armenian art in Greater Armenia and their connection to other Christian communities outside of the Mediterranean world,” she revealed.

Dr. Evans described her idea of a future exhibition at the Met to include the Monastery of Geghard, as an example of the great religious sites of the medieval Armenian period, as well as manuscripts showing the Armenian service, and liturgical objects and music. Great Armenian authors, including Movses Khorenatsi and Krikor of Narek (recently recognized as a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Francis) would be included.

Armenian Power

Armenians rose to prominence and were incredibly powerful in the Byzantine Empire and in the medieval period, Dr. Evans declared. It was common for rulers during the Crusader period to be married to an Armenian. Also important was Cilicia’s power and its influential scriptoria, as well as major scribes at Hromkla, and its most famous illuminator, Toros Roslin. Most of the works were from scriptoria in Cilicia, and its capital at Sis. The scholar noted that the last of the great Cilician-era painters was Sarkis Pidzak, of the famous “Gospel of the Eight Painters.”

As Cilicia fell to the Mamluks, she said, its artists went north to the Crimea or returned to Greater Armenia. Few works, other than manuscripts, have survived from this period. The most important relic was the arm reliquary of St. Nicholas.

The influence of the Cilician tradition on manuscripts of Greater Armenia, as well as the development of styles in Armenian communities, including New Julfa, Amsterdam, Madras (the location of the first Armenian printing press), and Jerusalem are important subjects to explore, as is the Armenian presence at the influential ceramic center of the Ottoman world, Kutahya.

In conclusion, Dr. Evans declared that the “display of Armenian art in the Met galleries would be placed within the broad outlines of the Byzantine world on the borders with the galleries of the arts of the Latin West. It demonstrates the importance of Armenian art and its relevance to other of the world’s artistic traditions.”

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