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Reverent Beauty: The Met’s Armenia Show Is One for the Ages

The World About Armenia

The New York Times: The Metropolitan Museum of Art gives the blockbuster treatment to Armenia, the oldest Christian country in the world.

By Jason Farago

They were mostly young people who came out in the streets of Armenia this past spring, waving balloons of red, orange and blue. They were fed up with their ineffectual government, and on their smartphones they watched the progress of an opposition leader, the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, as he walked in protest across central Armenia. When he arrived in Yerevan, the capital of this former Soviet republic, the crowds sang, shouted and swore to go on strike. Less than six weeks later, Mr. Pashinyan was named interim prime minister of Armenia, ushered into office on the shoulders of the extraordinary, nonviolent “velvet revolution.”

Armenia is a country with so much history it can overwhelm you. This spring we learned its future might be as eventful as its past, which makes it a timely moment for “Armenia!,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eye-opening appraisal of the art, manuscripts, textiles and religious artifacts of a nation that is still adding surprising chapters to its dramatic history.

Mr. Pashinyan attended the opening last month. There was no sign, alas, of Kim Kardashian, our most famous Armenian-American, but His Holiness Karekin II, the catholicos (or supreme patriarch) of the Armenian church, was also spotted in the galleries; the country was the first to make Christianity its official religion, and this exhibition, packed with weighty stone crosses and richly illuminated gospels, is a testament to the centrality of the church to Armenian cultural identity. No museum has ever mounted such a large exhibition of Armenian art, and most of the 140 objects here come from museum collections and churches in Armenia and rarely travel.

“Alexander Romance,” a 16th-century manuscript made in Rome by an Armenian bishop, relates the life of Alexander the Great. Here a Macedonian king’s ship is shown being swallowed by an enormous brown crab.CreditMesrop Mashtots' Institute-Museum of Ancient Manuscripts“Armenia!” has been organized by Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator of Byzantine art, and focuses specifically on the art and history of the country’s medieval period. It is not, despite the exclamation point in its title, an exhibition that favors razzle-dazzle. In fact, “Armenia!” is a rather bookish sort of blockbuster, concentrating heavily on illuminated manuscripts, and presented in low lighting to protect the gospels and romances on view. There is some ecclesiastical flash, in the form of bejeweled crucifixes and gold-plated censers, but this is primarily an exhibition of book illustration, unlike any other medieval manuscript show you’re likely to see.

Armenia had a long middle age, extending from the early fourth century, when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted the king, Tiridates III, to Christianity — an event commemorated at the opening of this show by a stela of porous stone, carved with portraits of the two men — until the late 16th century, when printed books made their first appearance. This mountainous region was a crossroads of influences from east and west, but 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.

Armenian book artists were not anonymous; they signed their names, had their own styles, and took risks. One volume here, flamboyantly illuminated by Sargis Pidzak in 1331, is open to a picture of a priest praying before St. Matthew in a field of gold leaf, while initial letters of the Gospels dance with the angels. (Note the pointy black hood worn by the kneeling priest: this distinctly Armenian clerical garb is still worn today.) A Bible from the later medieval period, illuminated by an artist named Hakob, depicts God as a ruddy-faced, goggle-eyed young man, as if in awe at his own creation. In a 16th-century manuscript relating the life of Alexander the Great, done in Rome by an Armenian bishop called Zak‘ariay of Gnunik‘, the Macedonian king’s ship is swallowed by an enormous brown crab, hooking the sails with its pincers as its mouth gapes open.

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