Look in any direction and you’ll see richly illuminated manuscripts, opulent gilded reliquaries, rare textiles, exquisitely carved khatchkars, precious liturgical woodwork, rare printed books—and the artistic pièce de résistance: a sixteen-foot painted map showing the locations of the Armenian churches of historic Armenia before the Genocide.
These are some of the sacred objects that grace eight rooms at the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. More than 140 exquisite pieces of devotional art make up the monumental exhibition titled “Armenia!” which explores the remarkable artistic, cultural, and spiritual achievement of the Armenian people over 14 centuries.
On Thursday morning, September 20, a crowded preview for the media took place before the official opening on September 22. This extraordinary exhibit will be on view for the public until January 13, 2019.
Introducing this special event were president and CEO of the Museum Daniel Weiss, as well as a representative of the Hagop Kevorkian Fund which has had a 50-year association with the Metropolitan.
Dr. Helen Evans, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Met, who was the curator and organizer of this exhibition, stated that the Met’s exhibition presents “the importance of the medieval art of a people on the border between East and West. Armenians forged a lasting national identity from their early 4th century conversion to Christianity, making them the first Christian nation in the world.”
“Armenian art should be considered a significant aspect of world art,” she declared with special emphasis. Dr. Evans explained she had spent the past four years seeking out items of rare quality throughout the Armenian world, and assembling them as an exhibit. Represented are treasures from the Republic of Armenia itself, as well as Jerusalem, Anatolia, Iran, and locales in Europe.
The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, working closely with Dr. Evans, has contributed one of the items in its treasury to the exhibition: a rare 17th-century Armenian printed bible.
The Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, stated that the exhibition “breathes the faith of the Armenian people. Stressing that the items on display represent a high point of Christian artistic expression, he stated that the exhibit is “inspired by the spiritual wealth of the Armenian people, including our past tragic circumstances, but also our highest spiritual aspirations.”
The Primate then uttered a moving prayer, and with Very Rev. Fr. Mesrop Parsamyan, Director of Ministries at the Diocese, led the large crowd in the singing of the Hayr Mer.
Opening Night at the Met
On Monday evening, September 24, close to 800 invited guests attended a special showing of the exhibit with a reception that followed.
His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, traveled from Holy Etchmiadzin to preside over the opening.
He was joined on the occasion by the new Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan. In a special reception prior to the grand opening, the dignitaries gathered with officials of the museum. Among the attendees were Diocesan Primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan, former Primate and current Envoy of Holy Etchmiadzin to the Vatican Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Diocesan Legate Ecumenical Director Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, and a number of philanthropists and art connoisseurs.
At the ceremony Catholicos Karekin II offered gracious remarks and concluded by presenting Dr. Evans with the distinguished “St. Sahag-St. Mesrob Medal” for her efforts in the arts and culture.
At the opening event, a huge crowd grew throughout the evening, milling about and socializing among the displayed objects. It was a remarkable juxtaposition of the modern and medieval Armenian worlds.
For Tony-winning actress Andrea Martin, it was such an effort to get near the beautiful displays that she said she would return at a quieter time, and “probably several more times.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans called it a “great day for Armenians.” He paid tribute to Helen Evans for the “well-selected items,” adding that “it was appropriate to have it in this great museum because of this historic year for Armenia.”
Carnegie Foundation President Dr. Vartan Gregorian stated that the Met exhibit “unified Armenians through their culture.”
And COAF Executive Director Garo Armen was “thrilled that we Armenians have achieved this. This year has been symbolic for the emergence of new Armenian spirit and Armenia, not only for the past, but also for the future.”
Roger Wieck, one of the Morgan Library’s leading curators who was instrumental in having a major exhibition of Armenian illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan a number of years back, enthusiastically called the exhibit, “important, dazzling, exquisite, glorious. It is a triumph!”
Morgan Library librarian and researcher Sylvie Merian said her “heart was filled with excitement. It’s wonderful that the manuscripts that I have studied for decades are being shared here with non-Armenians.”
By Florence Avakian