Harvard Professor Christina Maranci (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

WASHINGTON — Professor Christina Maranci, Harvard University Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, presented an engaging illustrated lecture titled “Armenia and the World in Art and Culture” on March 23. This was the inaugural program in the Grace & Paul Shahinian Armenian Christian Art and Culture Lecture Series. The Catholic University of America in Washington (CUA) hosted this lecture and one hundred and fifty scholars, students, and interested community members attended in person.

CUA Fr. Stefanos Alexopoulos and Rev. Fr. Hovsep Karapetian (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

Professor Fr. Stefanos Alexopoulos, director of the Institute for Eastern Christianity at CUA, said that this series was established to support, explore and cultivate the study of Armenian art, architecture and culture by sharing with a wider audience the fruits of the research of renowned scholars. He added that it was funded by Dean Shahinian and declared that the university was “very grateful.”

CUA Provost Aaron Dominguez (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

University Provost Aaron Dominguez described the history of Armenian studies at the university and historical relationships between the Catholic and Armenian communities. CUA Professor Robin Darling Young explained that Armenia was at the center of transcontinental trade routes from antiquity onwards and has made enormous contributions to both surrounding and distant cultures. She introduced Maranci warmly and commended her for working to protect Armenian churches and other monuments from serious danger.

CUA Provost Prof. Aaron Dominguez, Dean Shahinian, Esq., CUA Rev. Fr. Mark Morozowich (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

Maranci explained that Armenia’s pre-modern art and texts show its connectedness with the larger world and cited interesting examples. Armenia was not an isolated country. She said that studying its art is important because of what it can tell us about Armenia and about the world.

CUA Professor Robin Darling Young (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

She showed a ground plan of the seventh century church of Zvartnots. She described its “extraordinary design” – a double-aisle tetraconch with a rotunda on the outside – as the first of its kind.  Its inscriptions were written in the Greek and Armenian languages and its features have been compared with Hagia Sophia and Syrian and Mesopotamian buildings.

CUA Fr. Mark Morozowich (Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies)

She added, “It’s not just a building connected with Hagia Sofia, Syria or Mesopotamia. It’s not just understandable from the Armenian tradition. It did a lot of new things. It speaks very much to the moment in which it was built.” She concluded that Zvartnots was doing something special in drawing together different traditions to make a statement.

Professor Christina Maranci with a projected image during her talk (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

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Maranci showed manuscript images painted during the Armenian Cilician kingdom (1199-1375). Pages from the Lectionary of King Hetum II made luxurious use of gold, parchment, brilliant colors and minute details. One image showed a priest wearing a vestment bearing a pattern seen in China in the 12th to 13th centuries. She observed that Armenia was on a trade route and such fabrics could have been brought from China, which reflects the cosmopolitanism of Armenia.

Maranci analyzed 15th-century writings of Armenian pilgrims, because they offer “a unique and an extraordinary perspective” on medieval times and places that we may have read about. For example, some include details about buildings that subsequently have changed because of remodeling or demolition. She cited the writings of Bishop Mardiros from Erzinga, about his travels to Istanbul, Venice and Rome and his meetings with the Pope.

Archbishop Vicken Aykazian (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

She spoke about a set of 45 ceramic tiles made in the early 18th century in Kutahya that were sponsored by Armenians and intended to adorn the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. They bear a narrative text about events in Istanbul, use iconography from European prints and from South Asia, and ended up in the Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem. This gives us a sense of the “dizzying worldliness” of early modern Armenia. She observed that some think about Armenia as a small country with its problems and forget the fact that this had been an extraordinarily connected culture.

Finally, Maranci talked about New Julfa, a suburb outside of Isfahan in Iran. Armenians gained supremacy in world trade in the 17th century and developed a trading network from Amsterdam to the Philippines, which earned them significant wealth. One of many Armenian churches in New Julfa is Cathedral of the All Savior. This Armenian cathedral and neighboring churches absorb and integrate, she said, “Safavid mosque architecture, Dutch prints, Italian paintings, Armenian manuscript illumination and Armenian inscription: a real fusion that defies the categories of art history that you are used to.” The Armenians produced, she continued, “something that challenges all of those boundaries in a staggering way.”

The series has been created in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Paul and Grace Shahinian, who were intellectuals, loving parents, accomplished professionals. They embraced and supported Armenian Christian culture and community.

Dean Shahinian, Esq., asks a question about current centers of Armenian art (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

Following the talk and reception, some members of the audience shared comments. Think tank executive Mark Krikorian said, “Prof. Maranci didn’t deliver a dry academic lecture but a lively illustrated talk about how Armenian culture has influenced other cultures and been influenced by them in turn. I was gratified to see that one of the leading universities in our nation’s capital is bringing attention to the art and culture of eastern Christianity in general and the Armenian Church in particular.”

Dr. Zaven Kalayjian added, “In the span of a very short hour, Professor Maranci opened the audience’s eyes to the dimensions of Armenian creativity. Her lecture traced influences of architecture and manuscripts from Europe to the Far East, through centuries of trade, travel and craft. I very much appreciated her perspective on how Armenians adapted and internalized their local artistic environment and made it their own.”

Translator Louisa Baghdasarian praised how thoughtfully Maranci presented the subject. She described different facets of Armenian art — architecture, manuscripts, history and church decoration — succinctly and interestingly. “It was a very nice combination.”

Deacon Garen Hamamjian, left, and writer Rupen Koulaksezian (author of Little Armenias tour guide), with Fr. Mardiros Chevian, Dean of St. Nersess Seminary, at right (photo Joyce Naltchayan Boghosian)

Author Rupen Koulaksezian said, “Professor Maranci was great at making a complex topic accessible to a large audience. I am sure that many realized the importance of Armenian art thanks to her lecture.”

Dr. Maranci is the author of The Art of Armenia: An Introduction (Oxford University Press) and many other books and scholarly articles.

A video report on the lecture by Mirror-Spectator Video Correspondent Haykaram Nahapetyan may be viewed below.

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