Armenia and Benin live

September 30, 1994

The latest Armenian tragedy, a mudslide, may seem as remote as Armenia's six-year war with Azerbaijan. But Armenia is defined by Christianity (which it was the first nation to adopt), its unique alphabet (invented to strengthen the religion), and art created as religious devotion.

The greatest exhibition of Armenian Christian art ever shown in America is currently at the Walters Art Gallery. It consists of 89 illuminated manuscripts, mostly of the Gospels, from 30 collections, produced over the centuries. These holy books created the unity and maintained the identity of that nation as the empires came and went.

The exhibition, which includes the Walters' holdings, will remain here through late October. It complements the important shows the Walters has mounted in recent years of Greek, Russian and (( Ethiopian traditions in Christian art.

The oldest manuscript shown is a thousand years old, but the Armenia it represents is a surviving country, still in peril. The obligation of Armenians in the diaspora to its memory -- many are donors and lenders of the objects in this show -- is the lifeline this current Armenia has to the world, now that its Moscow connection is largely severed.

Another nation defined by its art is the former African kingdom of Benin, now shrunk to equate with the Edo people of southern Nigeria around Benin City. These people were creating art, particularly bronze castings, of a high and intricate order when Europe was creating Gothic art. What may be the finest show of Benin bronzes ever in America is at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The royal treasure covering the centuries in bronze and also wood and ivory was plundered by a British imperial expedition asserting control of Nigeria in 1897. The loot was auctioned in London to pay for the expedition. The art wound up in three museums, in London, Berlin and Vienna. The Vienna collection is on display here.

Beautiful heads of obas (kings) and queen mothers, going back to the 15th century, are major works of world art. The coastal people from whom this art springs are today more likely to be found among supporters of the imprisoned presidential electee, Moshood Abiola, than with the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, which represents Muslim peoples of the inland north.

Like the show at the Walters, the show at the BMA displays high art and ancient tradition of a living culture that has survived brutal forces and still asserts its identity.

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