Eternal beauty from an enduring culture

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Treasures from Armenia at The Met


  • Detail of a Four-Sided Stela from the Monastery of Kharaba depicting the Madonna and Child. Photo: Adel Gorgy.

  • A 12th–13th century Khachkar from the monastery of Havuts‘ Tar, Ayrarat. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Arm Reliquary of Saint Nicholas. The medallion on the hand of the reliquary identifies it as containing the bones of the saint. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A carved walnut door from Church of the Holy Apostles, Monastery of Sevan from 1486, on loan from the History Museum of Armenia. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A gold, silver, and silk altar frontal, 1741, from New Julfa, an Armenian district in Isfahan settled after the forced relocation of Armenians from Julfa to Isfahan. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Reliquary Cross with Relics of Saint John the Baptist, Cilicia, 13th–14th century, on loan from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the primary site of the Armenian Church. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A magnificent gilded manuscript giving a sense of the wealth and piety of medieval Armenia. Photo: Adel Gorgy.

  • Gospel Book of Lady Keran and Prince Levon II, from 1262, with paintings by T‘oros Roslin. Photo: Adel Gorgy

Armenia! - celebratory exclamation mark and all – is the subject of a beautiful, reflective exhibition at The Met Fifth Avenue, on view through Jan. 13. It’s focused on the history, culture and exquisite art of Armenia from the beginning of the 4th century, when it became the world’s first officially Christian country, through the 1600s when it was a powerful leader of international trade. The galleries are filled with stone work and architectural fragments laden with spiritual imagery, luxurious textiles, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and rare antique printed books, reliquaries laden with gems and precious metals, and a hushed sense of awe.

“By examining these magnificent treasures, we can better understand and appreciate the central role that art played in defining and connecting Armenian communities during this time, and how they both influenced and were inspired by styles from other cultures,” said Max Hollein, the new director of The Met. The exhibition was organized by Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine Art, with C. Griffith Mann, the curator in charge of Medieval Art, and the assistance of Constance Alchermes.

Of the roughly 140 works in the exhibition, most have never been seen in the U.S. before, and many have not traveled for centuries. Rooted at the base of Mount Ararat, the Armenian culture saw and survived the influence of Byzantine, Persian, Arab, Seljuk, Mongol, and Ottoman powers that passed through their lands at the historic and geographic crossroads of several civilizations. As with many enduring cultures of the world, Armenians adapted and adopted, moved and morphed, yet never relinquished their own unique identity.

Spectacular standing Khachkars, or towering cross stones, a distinctly Armenian art form, are a highlight. One on loan from the monastery of Havuts‘ Tar in Ayrarat was carved in 12th–13th century with incredibly intricate twining lines, knotted and looping endlessly. It’s the kind of decoration that was often painted on medieval manuscript borders, but hewing that level of complex detail from solid stone is something else altogether.

At the beginning of the exhibition is a four-sided stela, or upright stone marker, from the monastery of Kharaba. One of the oldest extant works of Armenian art, it was made in the 4th-5th century,

and depicts the conversion of King Tiridates to Christianity by Saint Gregory the Illuminator. Gregory, the patron saint of Armenia, was the son of a tyrant who fled the kingdom under the protection of Christian caretakers. He returned years later as a monk, converting the new king and the entire country.

Gregory’s story and other Armenian tales are repeated across centuries and works of art that express styles typical of both the Eastern and Western worlds. The story that comes across most clearly is of a tenacious, peripatetic and persevering people. Curator Evans describes the Armenians as “A unique people, who beginning from their homeland at the base of Mount Ararat, by the end of the Middle Ages have spread across the globe and are controlling massively important trade routes that reach from England to Latin America, from India to Russia.”

The success of the Armenian people is reflected in the lavishness of the works on view, including spectacular manuscripts with painted and gilded illuminations by T‘oros Roslin. Evans said of Roslin, “He is the Rembrandt of the Armenians, the Titian, and his lasting influence is as great as a Titian or a Rembrandt within the Armenian world.” In Roslin’s “Gospel Book of Lady Keran and Prince Levon II,” the artist incorporated images of faith and culture as well as human and divine presence all at once. The manuscript was commissioned as a gift for the couple. They stand side-by-side holding a picture of the sacred book. Dressed in rich silks, their portraits proclaim the wealth of the society. Above them, Christ blesses them. It’s a statement of both piety and worldly ambition.

Photographs of the works, as well as the audio guide, can be experienced on the Met’s website. Still, to stand before works fashioned from imagination, devotion and creativity, and with materials from ages ago, is moving and humbling in ways that an online experience can never be. The chance to widen our understanding of the world and become immersed in a culture while gazing upon exquisite works of art is a rare gift from the Armenian people, government, and religious and cultural institutions. Don’t miss it.

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