Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum to Host Major Exhibit on Armenian History, Manuscripts


By Taleen Babayan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK —For the first time in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a large-scale exhibition dedicated solely to the Armenian history and culture in the medieval period will take place in the fall. Curated by Dr. Helen C. Evans, “Armenia!” will cover the 4th to 17th century and portray the significance of Armenian art to the world during the Middle Ages.

Opening on the 27th anniversary of the Republic of Armenia’s independence, the exhibition will be on view from September 21, until January 13, 2019 and will feature some 140 Armenian works of art from around the globe.

The Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator for Byzantine Art at the Met, Evans has curated many significant exhibitions during her tenure, including “The Glory of Byzantium (843-1261)” in 1997 and “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” in 2004, that included major works of Armenian art. She also co-curated the Morgan Library and Museum’s 1994 exhibition, “Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts.” Thanks to Dr. Evans’s efforts, Armenian art is also now installed in The Met’s permanent galleries of medieval art.

Evans, who received her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, has taught courses on Armenian art at Columbia University and currently serves as president of The International Center for Medieval Art (ICMA).

Dr. Helen Evans

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Taleen Babayan spoke with Evans about the upcoming “Armenia!” exhibition at her Met office in January.

Taleen Babayan: Where did the idea emerge from to organize a full-scale exhibition such as this?

Helen Evans: I did my dissertation on the Armenian manuscripts of Cilicia and I have wanted to do an exhibition as long as I’ve been at the Met. In each of the big exhibitions I curated, there have been significant Armenian loans to always position Armenia as an important element of the Eastern Christian world.

TB: Are there other organizations hosting the “Armenia!” exhibition in conjunction with The Met?

HE: This is a Metropolitan Museum exhibition, so no group is officially hosting it with us, but a number of very major Armenian institutions and organizations have been very supportive. Our most important loans and the great bulk of the show are coming from institutions that are Armenian and that have preserved Armenian culture. In the Republic of Armenia with the support of the Ministry of Culture, we have loans coming from several museums. The Madenataran (the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts) is lending manuscripts that span the medieval era; the History Museum of Armenia is lending us lots of wonderful sculptural pieces, so people know Armenians didn’t just create manuscripts; the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin is lending us 20 quite marvelous pieces, and we very much appreciate His Holiness’s loans. In Jerusalem, the Patriarchate is lending to us a manuscript by Toros Roslin (a prominent Armenian manuscript illuminator in the Middle Ages) that has never left Jerusalem since its arrival there in the 1400s. We will be able to show the importance of Roslin in America. And we’re stressing several other individual Armenian artists, so you think of Armenians as artists and not just manuscripts representing a whole culture. In Antelias, the Holy See of Cilicia is also lending generously, and the Mekhitarist Monastery in Venice is sending their best manuscripts. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Portugal is lending, as well as the Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum in Detroit and the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, along with the Eastern Diocese, which is lending a copy of the Voskan Bible. We have certainly tried to represent Armenians protecting their own culture.

TB: Are there any other highlights featured in the exhibition?

HE: We are going to have the exhibition cover the Middle Ages in the Christian East from the conversion of Armenians beginning in the 4th century to the printing of books in Armenian that become widely available in the Armenian centers in the East, such as the Voskan Bible (mid-17th century). We will be covering major centers of Armenian culture from the homeland out to Cilicia and beyond into Kaffa (a city in Crimea) and Italy, and then back to the homeland and out to New Julfa (in present day Iran). I’m excited we’re borrowing sculpture, because manuscripts are what people associate Armenian art with, and that’s totally appropriate. But it’s nice to have reliquaries and textiles and the entire breadth of what a culture normally has. We have some spectacular manuscripts coming and reliquaries both from Antelias and Echmiadzin.

TB: What is the curating process like? How long have you been planning and what challenges have you faced during the process?

HE: In one way I’ve been planning this since finishing my dissertation, so decades and decades. I’ve tried to show since “The Glory of Byzantium (843-1261)” in 1997 that Armenia was an important section of an Eastern Christian community that operated within the sphere of the Byzantine Empire. “Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” in 2004 continued to demonstrate that Armenia was affluent. This time I’m able to say that here is a specifically important culture that people don’t think about. The goal of the exhibition from the museum’s perspective is to show that Armenian art is part of the world’s art and should be considered in that role. The Met’s former director, Philippe de Montebello, published in a book that the khatchkar at the Met (on loan from Armenia) is to be part of the world’s art. With this exhibition, we’re trying to make many people recognize that.

TB: Why has Armenian art been overlooked throughout history?

HE: There are multiple reasons. One is that Armenian art has been seen by many scholars as something that never talked to anyone else and thus became irrelevant. The way we are looking at the history of art is that it’s a hybrid of cultures we don’t think about. What the Met has been doing while I’ve been here is demonstrate that Eastern Christian art is important to everyone’s art.

TB: What other Armenian pieces are on display in The Met?


HE: We have very few Armenian works that belong to the Met. Oddly enough, a great number of them arrived in the first decades of the 20th century, where they were catalogued to the Islamic department because they came from the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world. I think I’m the first curator to have put them on display. We rotate the manuscript leaves and the manuscripts we acquired with very generous support of members of the Armenian community, particularly the Hagop Kevorkian Fund, which is also generously supporting this exhibition. In 2008, Jack Soultanian, our objects conservator who is Armenian, and I spent time in greater Armenia arranging to have a khatchkar and it was a difficult thing for the Republic of Armenia They didn’t really know America, so we were sending them drawings of where the work would be shown in the Met. The Armenians took us to the Lori region and I found the khatchkar among the several they were willing for us to find. When they lent khatchkars previously, to an exhibition in Paris, there were riots because some came from cemeteries and people weren’t happy to see cemetery stones moved elsewhere. We carefully borrowed something that came from a deserted fort and had no family ties. At first there was resistance, but now at the History Museum in Armenia, they say a khatchkar is at the Met and it’s reverberated well for them.

What I seek to do in the medieval galleries at the Met is to show the breadth and importance of East Christian communities, the most powerful of which was Byzantium. I think it’s very important that we realize — and the Met is moving towards these things — that Armenia controlled access to the Eastern trade routes. We’re going to open the exhibition with a wonderful map of the world by an Englishman named Matthew Paris. This map has always been very important to world studies because it’s one of the world’s oldest maps; yet no one has paid attention that the map is oriented so that the east is at the top and shows the two mountain peaks of Mount Ararat. They knew this because Armenian monks in England told them where Mount Ararat is and that Noah’s Ark landed there. We don’t think about Armenian monks traveling to England in the 1200s.

In the 17th century, the Armenians go out of New Julfa and this is in part the end of the show. Armenians control external trade for Shah Abbas of Persia and his successors and expand outward to India, where Armenians take over the internal and external trade routes, and Indochina. Armenians were amazing at network building. My essay will have an image of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, because he wears Armenian merchant clothing during a period he is ill and has to wear loose robes. He knowingly and willingly adapts the wardrobe of an Armenian merchant, which he knew about because his father spent time in Constantinople. Rousseau dressed as an Armenian, like Frenchmen or Englishmen, who used Armenian dress to gain greater access to the trade routes in the East.

TB: You’ve traveled to Armenia throughout your career. How was it traveling to Armenia to prepare for this exhibit and seeing the culture’s art?

HE: I first went to Armenia in 1982 to work on my dissertation and the people in the Madenataran were incredibly lovely to me. I spent a lot of time in Armenia this round for this exhibit. Armenians have preserved so much more of their culture than people think they have, because people say so much was destroyed, and it was, but so much of everyone’s culture has been destroyed. Armenians have done an amazing job of preserving, even if not in perfect form, sites and manuscripts and reliquaries that move around. The History Museum of Armenia is beautifully installed and very well-informed. The Madenataran’s library has very good tour guides and handsome displays of its manuscripts route and how they were brought out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. We have a manuscript in the exhibition written in Cilicia but it ends up in New Julfa in the 1600s. Things were cared for and moved. Others remained when the Armenian population left.

TB: An exhibition of this kind doesn’t come around too often, does it?

HE: This is the second Armenian exhibit of any scale in the United States. The first one in 1994 was the Morgan Library’s exhibit, “Treasures in Heaven,” that I participated in. The catalogue authors are largely Americans and they include what we anticipate being the next generation of scholars teaching about Armenia at American universities. The goal of the exhibition in terms of making people know about Armenia is that Armenian art and culture will be relevant in classes. I would like to think in five to ten years, if you were doing a survey of art history, you would put an Armenian object in it. Right now you do not. When I started, you didn’t put much of Byzantium at all and now there are larger sections of Byzantium in standard books. I just think Armenia is incredibly important for its own ability to create a self-identity and also it’s very important for the degree in which it moved ideas and goods on its trade routes.

It’s an incredibly exciting culture. I’ve always been very interested that we live in New York City and we’re bombarded with influences. What do we pick to care about? Armenians were bombarded with influences and they created a thread that’s very Armenian and at the same time they interacted quite extensively. So I hope what will come through is how great the culture is and how it was an important player on international trade routes. In fact, Marco Polo goes thru Ayas (modern-day Turkey), because Armenians could facilitate his route to China.

TB: Armenian history is very rich and layered, as you have mentioned. What would you like both Armenian and non-Armenians to take away from this exhibition?

HE: What I hope everyone will learn, and this is the standard I have for all my exhibits, is that after they walk through the exhibition, even without reading the labels, they can say whoever those people were, they were interesting. I have heard people say this at the end of my exhibitions, so I know it happens. I want the show to be accessible in a way that Armenians will learn the breadth of their Armenian culture. If they are non-Armenian, I hope they will learn that Armenia has great art from the objects, labels, and catalogue and the importance of the church to Armenians and how it’s part of the larger Christian sphere. It is their belief in Christ through their unique church that helps keep Armenians united over vast distances.


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