Illustrated manuscripts light up a distant time Heavenly illumination from Armenia

August 28, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Armenian illuminated manuscripts reflect many influences -- the classical tradition, Byzantine art, Islamic art, folk art and more. But partly because Armenians mixed these influences in their own way, their art is distinct and vivid, tied to Armenia's turbulent history as well as to its Christian religion.

Until now, Americans have not been exposed to this remarkable art in any depth, for there has never been a major show of it. Now there is: "Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts," opening today at the Walters Art Gallery.

"Armenian is a culture that almost all people who are not Armenian have probably no contact with and no exposure to," says Roger S. Wieck, project director of the exhibit and curator at New York's Pierpont Morgan Library, where it originated. "Armenian art was always considered provincial Byzantine and ignored and scoffed at by scholars.

One of the things we wanted to do was show that the wonderful medieval art produced in Armenia has its own aesthetic."

This aesthetic is displayed in more than 80 manuscripts -- elaborately illustrated, hand-copied books -- gathered from public and private collections all over America. It includes some of the most precious Armenian manuscripts and a number of the rarest come from the Walters' own collection, which Wieck unhesitatingly calls "the finest collection of Armenian manuscripts in this country." Of the Walters' 11 manuscripts, nine are in the exhibit.

"The Armenian manuscript was the most important visual medium of expression in Armenian culture," writes Thomas F. Mathews, the leading American scholar on the subject, in the show's accompanying catalog. He points out that Armenia didn't develop to any great degree such Western medieval arts as mosaics or panel painting,so "It is to manuscripts that one must turn for the most complete artistic statement of the Armenian world view and the most eloquent evidence of the Armenians' sense of place in relation to the peoples around them."

Armenian manuscripts reflect so many cultures because the country has a history of continual strife. Medieval Armenia occupied lands southeast of the Black Sea and west of the Caspian Sea, which put it between the Byzantine empire in the west and the Persian empire in the east. It was almost constantly torn by invasions from its more powerful neighbors.

Throughout centuries of change, however, Armenian art developed a style of its own, including a penchant for rich, vivid color. Armenians used mineral rather than organic colors, and that has proved an advantage, Wieck says. "The colors are extremely well preserved because of the Armenian predilection for mineral pigments, which do not fade over time and have a brilliance that organic materials do not have." Another characteristic of Armenian art was its division into two major branches. Manuscripts made for royalty and aristocracy tend toward the sophisticated classical tradition, while manuscripts of the monasteries and the clergy exhibit a more naive folk art style.

Both styles developed in the earliest manuscript period, from the 5th to the 10th century. But only about a dozen works from this period remain anywhere in the world, according to Wieck, and there is no classically oriented example from the period in "Treasures." There is one folk-style manuscript, however, the Walters' "Gospels of the Priest" (966), probably illuminated by the priest Sargis.

"The second-oldest Armenian illuminated Gospel Book, this is one of the most important manuscripts in North America," writes Mathews. Its illustrations are full of simple, colorful geometric designs -- circles, arcs, triangles -- and figures are flat and two-dimensional.

Significantly, the illuminator depicted the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) not in the clothes of ancient philosophers but in those of Armenian bishops. According to Mathews, "The priest who commissioned this manuscript was affirming the antiquity and authority of his own sacred state by dressing the evangelists as [Armenian] clergy." Moreover, by doing so he introduced an element of contemporary culture into a religious manuscript, which others did often in the succeeding centuries.

Until recently, Wieck says, scholars of Armenian art tended to be somewhat embarrassed by the folk art style of such manuscripts. But he thinks its time has come. "I happen to like it, and I think a lot of other people do, too. American aesthetics

have changed, and we appreciate folk art in a way that other generations could not."

Armenian illumination reached its zenith from the 12th to the 14th centuries in the kingdom of Cilicia, established on the Mediterranean in what is now southeastern Turkey by Armenians fleeing invasions of their homeland. Here, on a major trade route between East and West, Cilicia was in the path of the crusades and came under major Western influences. The Armenian Prince Leo even signed a pact of union with the Church of Rome in 1197.

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