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Armenia: Art, Religion and Trade in the Middle Ages

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Catalogue review published in Religion and the Arts, Volume 25, Issue 4,

September 29, 2021


Armenia: Art, Religion and Trade in the Middle Ages is the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Armenia!, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from late September 2018 to mid-January 2019. Extending from the acceptance of Christianity as Armenia’s state religion in the fourth century to the end of the eighteenth century, this volume examines Armenia’s role in the Eastern Christian world through a study of its unique visual culture. Examining thirteen centuries of Armenian art through the themes of religion and trade, the book provides rare insights into the ways that the Armenian people interacted with and impacted the powerful empires that surrounded them. Primarily comprised of religious artworks reflecting the development of Armenian Christian faith, the book demonstrates how trade expanded Armenian culture beyond its geographic boundaries. Often viewed by scholars in the shadow of the Byzantine empire or as a secluded center of its own, the present study succeeds in assessing how Armenia shaped the medieval world through cultural alliances, political ambitions, and the control of international trade routes. Exquisitely designed, the catalogue features an impressive range of over 140 objects demonstrating the nature of transnational interactions in the medieval period and the influence of the Armenian nation.

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a national religion, and this foundation was often the basis for conflict with powerful neighbors whose religious beliefs were hostile to their own. Yet Armenians were able to maintain a distinct identity by absorbing the influences of their neighbors while remaining rooted in their faith. As a transit route between Central Asia and the Mediterranean, Armenia was strategically important, enduring continual invasions, instability, and subjugation throughout the medieval period. But its geographic location also made Armenia a rich point of contact between diverse cultures. Devotional objects carried over trade routes extended Armenian religious beliefs and cultural innovations across large expanses of the medieval world, and linked Armenian communities in a unique visual identity.

The exhibition Armenia! was curated by Helen C. Evans, curator of Byzantine Art at the Met and editor of the catalogue. Nineteen other contributors, including international scholars and members of the Armenian religious community, lend their expertise to five survey chapters that proceed in chronological order with sections organized according to important historical centers. The book also includes a helpful glossary, extensive notes, and a thorough bibliography. Each chapter begins with an overview followed by brief essays on specific subjects and in-depth analyses of exhibition items. The book is dominated by religious manuscripts, but also includes excellent examples of reliquaries, architectural fragments, textiles, jewelry, ceramics, tiles, and various forms of stone carving, including examples of the celebrated khachkar, or cross-stone. Objects are presented in large, high quality reproductions and usually given their own page. The overarching themes of art, religion, and trade provide an affective lens for understanding the complex and fluid relationships between Armenian communities and far-flung cultures both east and west. Many of the objects presented serve as striking examples of the flow and exchange that characterized the period. The writing is consistently accessible yet provides scholarly depth for understanding each object in its historical and cultural context. The sheer diversity of objects featured, drawn from major collections around the world, might have resulted in something unwieldy or convoluted. Instead, the result is a focused and stimulating survey guided by an innovative approach to understanding a complex and rich visual culture.

The catalogue begins with the chapter “Armenians and their Middle Age,” in which Evans provides an overview of major events in Armenia’s medieval period and introduces religion and trade as the organizing themes of the book. Her introductory essay frames the subjects that will be explored in depth throughout the rest of the book, as well as providing those not familiar with Armenia’s history with a concise background. Evans accomplishes the task admirably, given the span of history covered and the complexities of its shifting geopolitics. She begins with the arrival of Christianity to Armenia and its adoption as the national religion, the invention of the Armenian alphabet, and the dissemination of learning through monasteries and scriptoria. Her essay briefly explores the impact of foreign invasions and the continuation of Armenian religion and learning under foreign rule. Here she introduces the book’s leitmotif of cultural influence and includes the kingdom of Cilicia and the role of Armenians in Byzantium.

The seven sections in this first chapter explore highlights that are touched on in the introductory essay, delving into the Armenian alphabet and surveying early architectural innovations. The first object of analysis is “Map of the Holy Land with Armenia,” a drawing by the thirteenth-century English monk Matthew Paris, which includes in its broad sweep of geography Noah’s ark sitting atop the peaks of Mount Ararat, guarded by snakes. With this surprising gem, Evans establishes the book’s central thesis: that Armenians played a wide and prominent, if little-known, role in the economic and cultural development of the medieval world.

Architecture is represented through stunning photographs of monastery churches, and the studies of individual fragments include stelae, capitals, and architectural models. Sections on the ancient cities of Dvin and Ani examine treasures that attest to the mixing of cultures, seen in examples of jewelry and ceramics produced in Armenia and objects imported from Iran and Central Asia. The section concludes with an introduction to the role of liturgy in the Armenian church. A variety of censers -- objects made to hold incense, are featured, reflecting styles used by Muslim artisans. Armenian contacts along trade routes to Northern Syria and Mesopotamia are thought to account for this influence.

“Greater Armenia and the Medieval World,” begins with an essay by Rachel Goshgarian, associate professor at Lafayette College, surveying Armenia’s adaptation to the political fractures brought about by invading Seljuks, Mongols, and Timurids from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries. Readers with little knowledge of this history will benefit from the author’s effective distillation of key events. Despite Islamic conquests, Armenians were major players in maritime trade and were able to take advantage of the Pax Mongolica to move a large variety of goods through Eurasia. The essay describes the cosmopolitan nature of a rising merchant class, the establishment of the kingdom of Cilicia as a separate power center, and the ways in which Armenians in the medieval world established economic ties, embarked on ambitious construction programs and accumulated wealth and power through cooperation and intermarriage.

The six sections of this chapter begin with a study of khachkars, tracing the development of this unique form of Armenian art with examples from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries. These include a magnificent basalt example found at a fortress in northern Armenia that incorporates symbols of the four evangelists. Out of their heads springs an elaborate cross, more like a tree of life than a vehicle for Jesus’s death. Next are short studies on important Armenian Christian sites in the provinces of Lori and Siwnik, with accompanying church models, architectural fragments, and a marvelous set of delicately carved doors from the Church of St. John the Baptist, located in the city of Mush. Also included is a large, gilded reliquary from 1300 CE holding what are thought to be remnants of the True Cross. Below the small doors of the object, the donor, an Armenian from a priestly family, is depicted in an orans posture and wearing Mongol dress.

The contributors to this chapter also demonstrate how Armenian builders added to their native architectural forms with new structural solutions and decorative programs influenced by their contact with Byzantine, Georgian, Seljuk, and Mongol traditions . This chapter also documents the importance of schools and scriptoria in the monasteries of Haghpat and Gladzor, important intellectual and cultural centers with rich libraries that thrived from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, as the Church’s political force helped to unite the Armenian diaspora. The last part of the chapter surveys the artistic influence of the Islamic world through books that bear the stamp of cosmopolitan centers like Tabriz, where different artistic traditions commingled and evolved.

Evans provides the essay for the third chapter, “Armenians Expand West: The Kingdom of Cilicia,” which documents the establishment and rise to power of the independent kingdom of Cilicia, founded at the end of the twelfth century along the Mediterranean coast. The writing provides a clear account of this relatively brief phase of Armenian history. Cilicia became the seat of the catholicosate (leading body of the Armenian church), which had fled the unrest in Greater Armenia. The kingdom’s elite controlled important trade routes and the port of Ayas, a critical stop for goods traveling from Central Asia to Europe. Cilicia made alliances with European Crusaders and the Mongols, and at its height challenged Byzantium as the most powerful Christian state in the Near East.

The first part of this chapter documents the important role Armenians played in the Byzantine empire through blood relations and the contribution of elite members of the military. The Armenian architect Trdat, who built the cathedral at Ani, also restored the dome of Hagia Sophia. The pro-Byzantine Hetumid family, which sought to unite the Armenian and Orthodox churches, became one of the ruling families in Cilicia. An Arm Reliquary of St. Nicholas testifies to the influence of Western Europe and includes in its center a medallion of the saint in the Byzantine tradition, his name written beside him in Armenian. Photographs of important fortresses are included with descriptions of their salient features and strategic importance.

There are sections on Skevra and Hromkla, important centers of learning and manuscript production in Cilicia, and analyses of important books: a Book of Lamentation, a Ritual Book of Ordination, and a Moralized Bible. Gospel books and a khachkar are included as well. This section also includes a fine manuscript illustration by the famous Armenian artist Toros Roslin, which combines western features with Armenian elements, portraying Armenian royals in a Byzantine style. The final sections here feature liturgical objects from Sis, the capital of Cilicia, and cover the Armenian presence in Crimea and Italy. They trace the artistic trends and modes of religious life that influenced the Armenian communities that had migrated from Cilicia after it fell to the Mamluks of Egypt in the late fourteenth century.

“Armenian Global Connections in the Early Modern Period” makes up the longest chapter in the book and includes a diverse range of objects attesting to Armenian influence. Goshgarian introduces this chapter with an essay recounting Armenia’s division between the Ottoman and Safavid empires, and clearly articulates important transitions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The lack of political unity amongst Armenians had led to the preeminence of the catholicosate at Etchmiadzin, the historical birthplace of the Armenian church, in 1441 CE. From Etchmiadzin, the church became the voice of the Armenian people, scattered across several empires. Nevertheless, Constantinople remained a cosmopolitan hub in which a multitude of cultures would blend, mutually influencing one another beyond the watch of the Armenian church or the Ottoman authorities. During the early modern period Armenians became more engaged in global trade, while also deeply invested in their local communities.

The eighteen sections of this chapter explore how geopolitical shifts and greater participation in trade networks infused Armenian communities throughout the early modern world, contributing to a diverse visual culture. Merchant patronage supported innovation in the religious arts, which absorbed new visual ideas, while some artists maintained an interest in more traditional forms. Armenian artistic centers arose in Ottoman and Safavid cities, while major building projects were financed by the church and wealthy Armenian families. A gold pyx made to hold the Eucharist, produced in Kayseri, an important center for Armenian metalwork, carries an image of the Last Supper. The composition and design of the image is based on a Dutch woodblock print. A section on Lake Sevan, occupied since at least the Bronze Age, introduces readers to this important center for learning and pilgrimage. It includes architectural and liturgical objects, mostly from the Monastery of Sevan. This is followed by an introduction to manuscript production and further sections that present a variety of Armenian manuscript types that flourished in the early modern era: gospel books that feature sideways-oriented illuminations, the ornate Khizon style, those that revived foundational texts, and the eclectic Julfa style.

The chapter also includes short studies and objects from the Armenian communities of Jerusalem, Sis, Aleppo, and New Julfa. Additionally, it surveys Kutahya ceramics, which feature decorations influenced by early Qing period porcelain from China as well as Indian designs. Armenian metalwork receives more attention here, including work produced in the city of Kayseri. A section on scriptoria in Constantinople is included as well. The last few sections of the chapter are devoted to Etchmiadzin and to the Iranian-Armenian community in Tabriz. Fascinating examples from Etchmiadzin’s cathedral treasury and museums are examined, including a Reliquary of the Holy Lance, thought to be that which pierced Jesus’s side.

The final chapter of the book, “Armenians in New Julfa” begins with an essay by Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, a professor of Armenian History at Tufts University, who provides the reader with a captivating historical account of the Armenians who were forcibly relocated by Shah Abbas I in 1604 CE to Isfahan, Iran’s capital at the time. Under Ottoman rule, Julfan Armenians had traded raw silk with Western Europeans for silver and manufactured goods, enriching the empire. The wealthy Armenians who were relocated from there and settled in New Julfa produced palatial houses and churches infused with Persian elements. In many cases, New Julfans managed Iran’s foreign policy, as well as participating in embassies in Europe and collaborating with Muslim ghulams (an elite class of leaders formed by the Shah) in a centralized administrative system. As they prospered during the seventeenth century, New Julfans used their wealth to contribute to the global Armenian community.

The seven sections of this chapter begin with Armenian architecture and scriptoria in New Julfa and continue with an examination of liturgical vestments. Readers learn about the role New Julfans played in the global market for raw silk, silver, cloth, indigo, gems, coffee, and saltpeter, and the interconnections formed with Europe and India through sea trade. There is a section on Armenian printed books and the development of Armenian presses in both Europe and the Near East, and the impact this had on the dissemination of Armenian history and culture. Individual objects include the Oskan Bible, the first Bible printed in Armenian. Produced in Amsterdam in 1666 CE and financed by New Julfans, it included prints originally used in Latin Bibles, and its imagery continued to influence Armenian art going forward. The chapter concludes with a section on maps, indicating the reach of the Armenian people across the globe, and includes the first printed world map in the Armenian language, also produced in Amsterdam. An Armenian map from 1691 CE identifies Armenian communities in the Ottoman empire, and another produced for the merchant elite of New Julfa features allegorical scenes in the European style. It depicts the world through which Armenian merchants traveled, a testament to their wide influence and impact on the early modern world.

The medieval period was not static and inwardly-directed, but marked by mobility and plurality. Armenian identity is emblematic of this condition, formed to a large degree in the liminal space between East and West, and developing through interconnections that cut across political boundaries. Straddling the complexities of international exchange, skilled merchants and craftsmen with the ability to speak many languages made the Armenians important go-betweens in economic and cultural centers. This made them indispensable to the ruling powers. At the same time, the Armenian identity is one characterized by resilience, deeply committed to its own traditions and unified by a common language. A sense of unity amongst a wide diaspora proved at the same time flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and cultural influence. The present volume compels readers to rethink the nature of cultural identity through a visual art that maintains a distinct tradition while absorbing and reinterpreting outside influences. Equally important, the catalogue showcases both artistic innovation and historical lessons in the context of religious expression.

Since the catalogue is primarily concerned with devotional works, other aspects of medieval Armenia are necessarily excluded. A larger representation of secular works -- literary, scientific, philosophical, and historical -- might have provided a more complete picture of Armenian creative and intellectual activity during this time. In addition, the book does not confront the destruction of Armenian monuments by Turks and Azerbaijanis in the modern era. These violent attempts at erasure are a major impediment to assessing the historical achievements of the Armenian people. One is left to assume this was neglected due to political pressure from Turkey. But the catalogue’s most glaring omission is its lack of maps, timelines, or charts that would help to orient the reader in time and space. Armenia’s history is long and complex, its political boundaries continually shifting and its place names changing. This creates a challenge for the general reader, who would not be familiar with many of the people and places that are referred to throughout the book. Medieval scholars and art historians wishing to add to their knowledge of the period may also have benefited from guides to the land and sea routes, as well as the locations of important cities and monuments known well only to specialists in Armenian art and history.

Yet overall, the richness of its design and the depth of its scholarship will help to ensure that this volume remains a useful study for many years to come. The book’s approach to the formation of national identity in the medieval world is innovative. It is supported by a vast array of important objects, beautifully reproduced, that provide specific examples of what mutual influence looked like and how it was shaped. All of these aspects help to set this volume apart from other books on Armenian art. Both informative and attractive, the book provides an engaging and accessible introduction to an overlooked nation and introduces new ways of thinking about the fluidity of cultural influence. Hopefully this study will encourage more attention from scholars to the important role Armenians had in shaping the medieval world.

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