Visiting the Getty Museum in Los Angeles or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—or any of the world’s great and large museums—can be an overwhelming experience. Wandering through these vast and comprehensive collections, it isn’t clear where to start. What is clear, though, is that these museums hold not only beautiful pieces of art, but also significant cultural heritage. Painted Greek vases and ornately carved wooden figurines from Oceania certainly hold aesthetic value as art, but for the peoples who produced them, they were also functional objects or important cultural or religious items. In recent years, museums, especially those with large collections drawn from around the world, have begun to rethink how to treat pieces they hold when those works have deep importance for the groups of people where they were created. One high profile instance of this reevaluation, including the often-contentious debates between museums and groups making claims on the artifacts in their collections, concerns a portion of a medieval Armenian Gospel manuscript!
During this week of Lent before the Sunday of the Steward, a parable of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16, intended to help the Christian reflect both on her own priorities and her relationship with God, it is also an appropriate time to contemplate stewardship more broadly. At the Zohrab Information Center, we hold old, precious, and sometimes unique Armenian and especially Armenian Christian books and artifacts in our collection. Last year, we reflected on stewardship and the Zohrab Information Center’s efforts to be a good steward of its collection and the Armenian Christian tradition reflected in that collection. This year, we will focus on a couple examples of stewardship of the Armenian Christian tradition. It is our hope that highlighting these examples will SPURN each of us to support the efforts of conservation, preservation, research, education, and use of our shared Armenian heritage. For it is only by attending to, contemplating, and being good stewards of what we have received that we can hope to forge a dynamic and vibrant future!
We begin, therefore, with a high-profile case of a set of Canon Tables, ornately decorated pages at the beginning of a Gospel manuscript that set out the correspondences between the Gospel pages. Often, these pages are the most sumptuously decorated in an entire Gospel manuscript. They elicited such powerful responses that some famous Armenian writers, St. Nersess Shnorhali among them, actually wrote commentaries on the Canon Tables, offering clues to how to interpret the rich imagery. During the Cilician period in Armenian history, when Armenians carved out principalities and eventually a Kingdom in southern Anatolia, the book arts were highly refined, and some of the most impressive Armenian manuscripts we have date from this point in Armenian history. Powerful nobles and influential bishops supported scriptoriums where the Gospels and other central sources of Armenian Christian literature were copied, bound, and illustrated. One of the greatest master illuminators of the era was Toros Roslin, whose work has become synonymous with the brilliantly decorated Cilician manuscripts. Sirarpie Der Nersessian, one of the most celebrated Armenian art historians, wrote extensively about Roslin in her remarkable book Miniature Painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century. Though he was forgotten to history for some time, today he is rightly celebrated, the only artist with a statue in front of the Matenadaran in Yerevan, the largest repository of Armenian manuscripts in the world. Roslin developed the art of adorning the Canon Tables.
Roslin’s work is known to us through only seven signed manuscripts, one of which is known as the Zeytun Gospel. This Gospel, along with its canon tables, is the subject of a recent book, The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript from Genocide to Justice, by Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh. Watenpaugh, an art historian the University of California, Davis, has written a remarkable book, one that traces the history of this manuscript from its creation, including its illumination by Roslin, through to the town of Zeytun, until the Genocide. During the Genocide, it remarkably survived, though it was separated into two: the main Gospel book, which made its way to Istanbul and eventually to the Matenadaran; and the four folios making up eight canon tables. These canon tables were kept by a family who survived the Genocide and came to America, until they were eventually sold to the Getty Museum, the world’s wealthiest art museum. In 2010, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed a lawsuit against the Getty, alleging that the Canon Tables had been stolen during the Genocide, and that since they were part of a religious book they rightly belonged to the Church. Thus began an argument about cultural heritage, stewardship, the different between a work of art and a cultural object, Genocide history, and more. In 2015, the lawsuit was settled, and the Canon Tables remained at the Getty as a gift from the Church, acknowledging that the canon tables are ultimately Christian works of art intended for use in the Church. Watenpaugh beautifully traces not only this debate about stewardship, but the full history of the Gospel book. The book was awarded the Der Mugredechian Outstanding Book Award from the Society for Armenian Studies last year and is a brilliant meditation on the role of art and cultural artifacts for collective memory. It is a wonderful book to help think about the stewardship of our Armenian Christian heritage.
|The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript from Genocide to Justice||A sweeping and compelling story that follows the famed Zeytun Gospels from created in Cilician Armenia to separation during the Genocide. By Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh, a powerful look at an Armenian source, its history, and the struggles over its status as cultural heritage.|
|Miniature painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from the twelfth to the fourteenth century||Sirarpie Der Nersessian’s magisterial account of manuscript painting in Armenian Cilicia. The second volume is entirely plates, examples of the beautiful illuminations she describes in the main text. An indispensable account of Armenian book arts and of Toros Roslin’s art.|
|Mayr tsʻutsʻak hayerēn dzeṛagratsʻ Matenadaranin Mkhitʻareantsʻ i Venetik||The Catalogue of the manuscripts in the collection of the Venice Monastery of the Mkhitarist Order. The Monastery holds the third-largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world, and this catalogue lists and gives descriptions of them. In Armenian.|
The arrangement between the Western Prelacy and the Getty over the Canon Tables of the Zeytun Gospel marks a novel arrangement for the stewardship of Armenian heritage, although it is one that is increasingly common in the museum world in general. On the other hand, the main manuscript of the Zeytun Gospel resides at one of the premier repositories of Armenian heritage: the Matenadaran. On the top of the road named after Mesrob Mashdots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet, the Matenadaran is a research institute that houses manuscripts and includes a public museum. It is the world’s largest repository of Armenian manuscripts. The word matenadaran, մատենադարան, combines the Armenian words for manuscript or book (the same word մատեան, is used in the title of Gregory of Narek’s “Book of Lamentations,” discussed last week) and repository. Therefore, the Matenadaran is a “repository of manuscripts.” The word has been used for centuries to refer to repositories of manuscripts. In earlier centuries, the word functionally meant a library, since there were no printed books—just hand-copied books, manuscripts! Throughout Armenian history, many monasteries had impressive matenadarans. Of those monasteries still standing in the Republic of Armenia, some of the biggest repositories of manuscripts were at Haghpat, Sanahin, Tatev, and Saghmosavank, to name a few that you could visit today!
Many of these medieval monastic manuscript repositories were destroyed or plundered through the centuries. The Mongol Invasions, during the thirteenth century, were particularly destructive. Of course, the Genocide, in addition to the martyrdom of 1.5 million Armenians, included the destruction of many cultural artifacts, including manuscripts. Watenpaugh, in her book about the Zeytun Gospel, talks about survivor objects, considering these amazing manuscripts as survivors of the Genocide as well. Given the centuries of destruction, the cultural stewardship of an institution like the Matenadaran is absolutely crucial.
In addition to the Mashdots or Yerevan Matenadaran, there are several other notable repositories of Armenian manuscripts throughout the world. Of those, two stand out: the collection of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the collection of the Mkhitarist Catholic monks on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice, Italy. These are considered, respectively, the second and third largest collections of Armenian manuscripts in the world. In a future article, we will discuss the full history of the Mkhitarist congregation. Today, we simply note that it is impossible to talk about good stewardship of Armenian Christian heritage without mentioning the Mkhitarists. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they collected thousands of manuscripts from historic Armenia, copying them, and also issuing some of the first printed editions of important Armenian texts. Without their efforts, the physical manuscripts as well as the knowledge in the texts themselves would have been lost.
At the Zohrab Information Center, we strive to carry on this legacy of good stewardship of Armenian and especially Armenian Christian heritage. The collection includes some of the early printed volumes by the Mkhitarists, as well as other important early printed material, such as the first printing of the Armenian Bible. Other institutions in the United States, such as the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, many university libraries, and other Armenian organizations, all work together as good stewards of Armenian cultural heritage. During Lent, a time of both reflection on our priorities and charitable giving, we hope you too consider how you can serve as a good steward!
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