More than a decade before Constantine issued his Edict of Milan, extending toleration for the first time to Christianity in the Roman Empire, King Trdat II was baptized by St. Gregory the Illuminator, bringing Christianity to his small country.
That country was Armenia.
Pope John Paul II will be among those marking the 1,700th anniversary of Armenia's conversion to Christianity this year — he plans a trip there this summer.
The British Library in the St. Pancras section of London is marking the anniversary this year, also. It has mounted a gala exhibit, “Treasures from the Ark: 1,700 Years of Armenian Christian Art.”
While it's probably a little late for Register readers to cross the Atlantic and take in the show — the Armenian exhibit will close May 28 — it's been so exhortative that it seems a vicarious visit is in order. Allow me to be your virtual gallery guide during these, its final days?
‘Breath of God’
“Treasures from the Ark” refers to the tradition that Noah's Ark landed on Mount Ararat on the Armenian-Turkish border. Armenians claim that the Apostles Bartholomew and Jude Thaddeus preached the Gospel there. Although remote, Armenia has long played an active role in the history of Christianity. Consider, for example, that along with the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, they are among the custodians of Jerusalem's holy places. The focus of the exhibit is on artifacts from the monophysite Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church.
The range of media in the exhibit — illuminated manuscripts, silverware, carved wood and ivory, ceramics, tapestry, carved stone — is vivid testimony to the pervasiveness of faith among the Armenians. While works from Armenia proper occupy center stage, some political points are also scored (for example, the 1232 Tarmantchat Gospel from Nagorno-Karabakh asserts Armenia's interests in that territory now disputed with Azerbaijan).
Armenia's far-flung diaspora is also represented. One particularly moving example of the latter is the 25-foot altar cloth from Madras, India, depicting scenes from Jesus' Passion like the Last Supper, the Mandatum, the agony and arrest in Gethsemane, Jesus before Caiaphas and Pilate, the scourging, crowning and crucifixion, and Jesus' burial.
Illuminated manuscripts, however, occupy pride of place. A broad range of Gospels and other sacred books show the development of Armenian Christian art, combining general Byzantine styles with indigenous elements as well as traces from Armenia's various occupiers. (One exhibit note even suggested resemblance between the depiction of Christ and Buddha in a manuscript dating from the era of the Mongols, although I thought that was stretching it.)
It is said Armenians call the Bible Astuadsashantch, the “breath of God.” One can see the loving care and maturing mastery that inspired Armenian illuminators over the centuries in these Bibles.
If one must pick and choose among these treasures, however, certain ones merit special mention: the Rabbula Gospels (ca. 586), whose art set patterns for religious art in both East and West; the Erznka Bible (ca. 1269), the first complete illustrated Armenian Bible; and various “Canon Gospels” (parallel Gospel texts).
Western manuscript illuminators and their patrons are often anonymous. In contrast, in Armenia both felt that having a role in preparing a sacred book was a pious act, and they wanted to commend themselves to the users' prayers. An entire segment of the exhibit looks at the development of this phenomenon by studying the colophons, the inscriptions at the end of a book which tell how the book was made.
The skills of Armenia's Christian artists were not confined, however, to books. Two intricately carved wooden church doors, one (from the 15th century) depicting Pentecost, grace the exhibit. Sacred and secular motifs intertwine on a wooden capital dating from 874 from the Church of the Holy Apostles (claimed to be one of only two extant pre-12th-century examples of such handiwork). The silversmith's craft is exhibited in three reliquaries — one of St. Stephen, one said to contain a relic of the True Cross and one of St. Bartholomew.
Armenian weaving skills are renowned the world over and are showcased in this program. In addition to the passion cloth from Madras, a large, detailed altar frontal depicts the life and work of St. Gregory. Also on display is a collection of 19th-century liturgical vestments.
“Treasures from the Ark” testifies to the powerful inspiration of Christianity on the arts. It proves how faith can impel artists to make lasting objects of beauty for the service of God (while provoking reflection on our seemingly contemporary impoverishment in that field). “Treasures” also exposes viewers to the richness of the Eastern Christian tradition, one of the Church's “two lungs,” as Pope John Paul II has reminded us.
John Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from London.