26 11 2008 - Dr. Helen Evans Looks at "The Larger Picture" of Armenia and Byzantium in NAASR Lecture
Dr. Helen Evans Looks at "The Larger Picture"
of Armenia and Byzantium in NAASR Lecture
Dr. Helen Evans, Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, presented an illustrated lecture entitled "Armenia and Byzantium: The Larger Picture" on October 30, at the NAASR Center. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Ararat Lodge of the Knights of Vartan and NAASR.
NAASR Director of Academic Affairs Marc A. Mamigonian introduced Dr. Evans and expressed NAASR's gratitude for the participation of the Knights of Vartan and in particular the assistance of Nigoghos Atinizian in making the evening possible.
Evans' lecture was organized around the magnificent medieval khachkar (stone) cross from the Lori region of Armenia that is on long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Republic of Armenia.
Evans stated at the outset that she was "going to consider [the khachkar's] role as a gospel in stone, and through that ask how its images open windows into the character of Armenian art" and the "larger world picture that often relates Armenia to Byzantium." Noting that khachkars are a distinctive Armenian art form "that we consider without parallels in Byzantium," she proceeded to explain why she relates it to a gospel book-and that it is "the gospels rather than icons which are generally venerated in Armenia."
At the base of the khachkar are visual representations of the four gospels: the symbols of the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: that is, an angel's head for Matthew, a lion's head for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John. Evans then compared these representations to other depictions in Armenian illuminated manuscripts as well as in sculptures adorning churches of roughly the same period. It is significant, as Evans observed, that the cross at the center of the khachkar "rises directly from the crown of the angel, making explicit the gospels' role in the revelation of salvation."
Above the cross on the khachkar is "a large arch and to its sides on the upper edges ... are small pairs of birds facing what must be fountains." The birds are strongly reminiscent of similarly placed birds in the elaborately decorated canon tables of Armenian and Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. The bird imagery is by no means unique to Armenian tradition, but Evans then posed the question, "What, if anything, do birds mean in an Armenian religious context?"
By way of an answer, she showed and discussed a famous and important example: a mosaic floor of an Armenian funerary chapel in Jerusalem from the 5th or 6th century A.D. that preserves not only one of the earliest preserved examples of Armenian writing but also an elaborate decorative program of grapevines and birds. The writing dedicates the chapel "to the memory and salvation of all Armenians whose name the Lord knows." Evans explained that in "early Armenian texts, birds are clearly identified as symbols of the resurrected, those who were good in life," a concept inherited from Armenia's Zoroastrian past.
Evans then discussed some of the political interconnections between Armenia and Byzantium that accompanied the artistic ones. For example, around the same time the mosaic was made, on Golgotha in Jerusalem stood a jeweled cross containing part of the True Cross. In the early 7th century, Jerusalem was sacked by the Persians and the cross was taken away. In the 620s it was rescued by the Byzantine emperor Heraclios, whose father was Armenian.
She also examined in detail "the only image of a Byzantine general in military dress that survives" from the medieval period, in the Adrianople Gospels, produced in Armenian by the scribe Krikor in 1007. Evans explained that the general who owned the gospel and who is depicted "must have taken an oath of loyalty to the Orthodox Church of the empire" or else he could not have achieved such a high rank. Thus, "the work is an expression of a duality that needs further study. The general, whose gospel book is written in Armenian, served an emperor who was a descendant of the half Armenian Byzantine emperor Basil I and a duke whose family is also thought to have been of Armenian origin." The gospel book, therefore, "should be understood...as representing a bridge between two cultures-that of the Armenian world from which the emperor and the general emerged and that of the empire which they served."
In the course of her lecture, Evans provided numerous additional striking examples of the intersection of the two cultures. She summed up, saying that "In studying Armenian and Byzantine art, we should understand the importance of identifying what is unique to those cultures, but we should also seek to understand the interweaving between peoples that reach across the world." Too often the emphasis has been on viewing the one to the exclusion of the other-a practice that, fortunately, has fallen out of favor. Evans' lecture and her work as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum stand as a strong statement in favor of the integrative approach.
Evans is a specialist in Byzantine and Armenian art who has been a member of the Department of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1991. She curated the exhibition "Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts" at the Morgan Library in 1994 and at the Metropolitan Museum her major exhibitions have been the acclaimed "The Glory of Byzantium (843-1261)" in 1997 and "Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)" in 2004. She installed the museum's Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Byzantine Art in 2000 and recently completed its expansion and reinstallation this year.
Upcoming NAASR Events
Thurs., Dec. 4, 2008, 8:00 p.m.: Prof. James R. Russell, "Black Milk and the Stairway to Heaven: Bedros Tourian, Paul Celan, and Anselm Kiefer." Co-sponsored with Hamazkayin Armenian Educational & Cultural Society, Boston Chapter. At the NAASR Center, 395 Concord Ave., Belmont, MA.
Thurs., Dec. 11, 2008, 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m: NAASR Christmas Open House with a special illustrated talk at 8:00 p.m. by Prof. Christina Maranci of Tufts University, on "Images of the Nativity in Armenian Art". Bookstore will be open with many new items, and offering special discounts. Refreshments will be served. A special collection of Made in Armenia Direct items will be on sale and the 2009 Project SAVE calendar will be available. At the NAASR Center, 395 Concord Ave., Belmont, MA.
Mon., Dec. 15, 2008, 7:00 p.m.: "The Armenian Magical Scroll and Outsider Art," a lecture by Prof. James R. Russell. Co-sponsored by the Armenian Library and Museum of America, The Krikor & Clara Zohrab Information Center, and NAASR. At ALMA's Bedoukian Hall, 65 Main St., Watertown, MA.
More information about these events is available by calling 617-489-1610, faxing 617-484-1759, e-mailing email@example.com, or writing to NAASR, 395 Concord Ave., Belmont, MA 02478.