Ar­me­nia!

The Week (US) - - 24 Arts -

Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, New York City, through Jan. 13

One of the world’s true un­der­dogs is hav­ing a mo­ment, said Philip Ken­ni­cott in The Wash­ing­ton Post. Ar­me­nia—a small, an­cient, at times land­locked coun­try that has long been at the mercy of com­bat­ive larger pow­ers on all sides—has en­dured cen­turies of war, geno­cide, and forced mi­gra­tion since be­com­ing the world’s first Chris­tian na­tion in 301. But judg­ing from the dis­tinc­tive re­li­gious art this East-West cross­roads has pro­duced, “noth­ing could dim the Ar­me­nian cul­tural ef­flo­res­cence.” New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum has now mounted a “sump­tu­ous” sur­vey of Ar­me­nian art from the 4th to 17th cen­turies, and the work will make view­ers rethink how Ar­me­nia and its peo­ple ab­sorbed and shaped the shift­ing cur­rents of world cul­ture. As their di­as­pora spread, Ar­me­ni­ans es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ties in Jerusalem, Aleppo, and Con­stantino­ple, and “played a vi­tal role in the Byzan­tine Em­pire.”

Much Ar­me­nian art “seems at once fa­mil­iar and re­mote,” said James Gard­ner in The Mag­a­zine An­tiques. Any­one who’s vis­ited a mu­seum’s me­dieval gal­leries has seen il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts and sil­ver reli­quar­ies be­fore, yet these ap­pear born of “a dif­fer­ent tra­di­tion al­to­gether: an­cient, rugged, and un­fath­omable.” A carved stone pil­lar from the 4th or 5th cen­tury in­cludes a man with the head of a boar—likely a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of King Tiri­dates III, who ac­cord­ing to lore was turned into a boar af­ter at­tack­ing a com­mu­nity of Chris­tian nuns, be­fore he re­pented and em­braced Chris­tian­ity. In a Bible cre­ated in 1586 by Hakob of Julfa, God is a car­toon­ish, bugeyed man who lifts his hand to will the uni­verse into be­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, “the show’s main flaw is that we never get a very clear pic­ture of the dis­tinc­tive as­pects of Ar­me­nian Chris­tian­ity,” said Ed­ward Roth­stein in The Wall Street Jour­nal. Pho­to­graphs of monas­ter­ies perched on moun­tain­sides cre­ate a sense of a faith forged in a for­bid­ding en­vi­ron­ment, though, and what­ever the de­tails of the Ar­me­ni­ans’ creed, “we are suf­fused with its spirit as we make our way through the gal­leries.”

But Ar­me­nia never was a clois­tered so­ci­ety, said Ja­son Farago in The New York Times. “Ar­me­nian art scram­bles sim­ple un­der­stand­ings of ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia,’ ex­hibit­ing a stylis­tic cos­mopoli­tanism even as it used Chris­tian iden­tity to de­fine it­self within the world of Is­lam.” The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes a 12-foot-wide “show­stop­per” of a 1691 map that cel­e­brates the wide in­flu­ence of Ar­me­nian mer­chants by de­pict­ing 800 Ar­me­nian wor­ship sites strung be­tween the Cau­ca­sus and Iran. Ar­me­nia, “as this great show at­tests,” has since been bat­tered by sub­ju­ga­tors. But in­stead of col­laps­ing, its spe­cial cul­ture per­sists. Just this spring, in fact, de­mon­stra­tors peace­fully de­posed the coun­try’s in­ef­fec­tual prime min­is­ter, pro­vid­ing “a rare gleam of hope in this age of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.” To those young pro­test­ers, “the man­u­script of Ar­me­nian his­tory is still be­ing writ­ten.”

Alexan­der the Great’s story, in a 16th-cen­tury Ar­me­nian book

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