Armenian manuscripts are lofty works

September 02, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

The Armenian illuminated manuscript was long thought a provincial stepchild of Byzantine art. Not so, claim the organizers of "Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts" now the Walters Art Gallery. Armenia, a Christian country since the 4th century, developed a rich and imaginative art whose principal expression was in the Gospel Book.

The organizers of this exhibit, including art historian Thomas F. Mathews and Roger S. Wieck, curator at New York's Pierpont Morgan library (where it originated), make an excellent case with the 88 examples included. This is a moving, beautiful, and with one exception impeccably presented show that brings this art to an American public for the first time.

Situated in Asia Minor between empires of the East and West, Armenia has a history of invasion, subjugation and strife. In its art, it was influenced by a number of traditions, including the Byzantine and the Islamic. But it developed its own characteristics, too, one of which was a penchant for the use of mineral pigments to produce rich, vibrant colors that do not fade over time. As a result, many of the illuminations in this show look as fresh as if they were finished last year.

Armenian art was also characterized by division into two main styles, a classically oriented "high" style used for the aristocracy and a folk-oriented "naive" style used in books made for the monasteries and the clergy.

Both styles have their charms, and both receive ample exposure in this show. There are many treasures, some of the principal ones from the Walters itself. The exhibit was drawn from collections all over America, but nine of its works come from the Walters. Its examples constitute "the finest collection of Armenian manuscripts in this country," says Wieck.

They include the earliest manuscript in the show, the "Gospels of the Priest" (966), the second oldest Armenian illuminated Gospel book extant. Here it is housed in a model of a 13th century Armenian church, which gives the show a weighty opening.

Nearby are the extraordinary illuminations of T'oros Roslin, the 13th century figure considered the greatest Armenian artist. The show contains the Walters' "Gospels of T'oros the Priest" (1262) open to "The Nativity" and supplemented by color transparencies of four other leaves from the book. Together, these amply display the artist's intense colors, flowingly clothed figures and carefully delineated faces. Eight folios from the same artist's "Zeyt'un Gospels" (1256) bear the artist's tour de force decorations of the canon tables (or index), with their elaborate trees, scrolls, cornucopias, columns, vases and pitchers, and no fewer than 26 pairs of birds wearing brilliant plumage.

Another great rarity of the show is the famous Gladzor Gospels (1300-1307) with 55 illustrations of the life of Christ by five artists. Because this manuscript has been disbound for conservation, the show is fortunate to have 38 leaves on view.

We are also treated to a section of bindings, including examples in enameling, repousse silver and jewels.

The show's excellent texts and labels clearly point out the salient characteristics of each period and explain the importance of each manuscript. The spaces in which it is installed are small enough to give one a necessary sense of intimacy with these works.

The show does include a distracting and annoying sound component, however. On entering, you are met by a recording of chanting voices, which could be lovely elsewhere but here interferes with concentration. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the show, you're assaulted by the voice-over from the video at the end.

ART REVIEW

What: "Treasures in Heaven"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 23.

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, 18 and under and students free.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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