“Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts” at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
May 4–August 7, 1994

Surely one of the most unusual exhibitions on view in New York at the moment is this collection of about ninety Armenian illuminated manuscripts at the Pierpont Morgan Library. By “unusual” I do not, of course, mean to include the many examples of ritualized psychopathology one regularly sees mounted in various SoHo “performance art” galleries and, alas, at trendy museums like the Whitney. The objects on view at the Morgan are aesthetically unusual: quite beautiful, some of them, but unlike anything in the Western tradition of manuscript illumination I have ever seen.

Like most everything the Morgan Library does, this exhibition—the first ever devoted to Armenian illuminated manuscripts in the U.S.—is a serious scholarly performance: sensitively installed and accompanied by a great deal of informative historical material. Thomas F. Mathews, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and Roger S. Wieck, associate curator of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts at the Morgan, organized the exhibition, drawing on numerous U.S. collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, which owns some of the rarest artifacts on view.

Although Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion (c. 314), its isolation in the mountains of Asia Minor and its place at the Eastern border of Christendom meant that its religious life (like its cultural life generally) would develop in idiosyncratic ways. Not only did medieval Armenia subscribe to various theological heterodoxies, but also its scriptures occupied a very different place in Armenian religious life from the place they occupied in orthodox Latin Christianity. Most of the manuscripts included in this exhibition are Gospel Books, illuminated texts of the four gospels, written in the vernacular, Armenian, instead of in Latin or Greek. They were venerated in Armenia and were regarded as possessing almost talismanic power. Thousands of them were commissioned privately in the belief that doing so assured one a permanent memorial in heaven.

The exhibition opens with a tenth-century book called Gospels of the Priest—the second oldest Armenian illuminated manuscript in the world—and includes a handful of manuscripts that were painted as late as the early eighteenth century (the importance of Gospel Books faded out elsewhere in the eleventh century). At the center of the exhibition are manuscripts that were illuminated between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The style and competence of the illumination varies widely. Scholars distinguish broadly between a largely untutored clerical or folk tradition of manuscript illumination and a more elaborate courtly tradition. Many examples of both are on view here.

One of the most striking things about these manuscripts is the presence of Eastern motifs in a genre that most of us firmly associate with Western artistic practice. Unlike Byzantine art, Armenian art betrays the polyglot influences of its geographical location at the unhappy crossroads of the Hellenistic, Iranian, Byzantine, and Islamic worlds. Not only did this put the Armenian kingdom in permanent jeopardy of invasion by foreign powers, but it also left a deep and multifaceted impression on its art. One sees in the art the influence of everything from French Gothic illumination (in the Cilician manuscripts of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries) to Islamic motifs (in the so-called Gladzor Gospels, which was completed in 1307). For Western eyes, “Treasures in Heaven” will be a fascinating if difficult-to-place achievement: the story and medium are familiar, but the treatment is uncompromisingly exotic. Those who miss the exhibition in New York will be able to see it at the Walters Art Gallery, where it will be on view from August 28 to October 23.

A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by the Morgan and Princeton University Press (229 pages, $69.50; $35 paper).

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 10, on page 44
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