Art

Elie, Paul

TREASURES ON EARTH ARMENIAN ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS Thematically, there are many ways to approach "Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts," which appeared through early August at...

...One comes away delighted, and illuminated paul elie Paul Elie is a frequent Commonweal contributor...
...Again and again in "Treasures in Heaven," one comes across whole scenes, or ways of presenting scenes, that appear to diverge sharply from the traditions of manuscript illumination in the Latin church of the period Whether or not these scenes are unique to the Armenian church, they are uncommon enough to make the exhibit feel like a first encounter in art with key aspects of the Chnstian tradition The thirty-eight pages of the Gladzor Gospels on exhibit, while presenting the tradition of the Gospel Book, also reveal the nch and strange stresses put on the life of Christ by Armenian artists Used and venerated in the liturgy, an Armenian Gospel Book included canon tables, scenes from the life of Christ, and portraits of the evangelists, as well as a portrait of the donor or benefactor of the manuscript The Gladzor Gospels' scenes from the life of Christ, illuminated by five artists, are remarkable On some pages the artists depict familiar scenes, but arrange them quite differently than was done m the West For example, in the Beheading of John the Baptist, the guests at Herod's table are joined by a pair of beasts The Last Supper is depicted as if viewed from the ceiling, so the Apostles' heads are arrayed around the table, Judas, shown in jutting profile, thrusts his hand toward the dish, while Jesus lies spread out on a table top (like a lamb, the tag notes) In an image of a postResurrection appearance of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, the Apostles draw up their nets while a chalice and a single fish hover in the evening sky, as if in a Chagall painting Other leaves depict scenes from the life of Chnst that, to my knowledge, were depicted rarely in the Western art of the period Peter warms his hands at a roaring fire while a maidservant stands by (Peter's Denial) As Lazarus is raised, an attendant pinches his nose against the stench of death In a Last Judgment scene, blue angels descend toward a barren landscape while, below ground, the dead, in rows of plain coffins, bend forward, being raised at last These images seem unique, yet they also seem to have iconic tradition behind them...
...TREASURES ON EARTH ARMENIAN ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS Thematically, there are many ways to approach "Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts," which appeared through early August at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York and is now on view at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore...
...Thanks to its artists, Armenia's national culture came to be identified with the development of the "Gospel Book...
...in a Gospel Book portrait, John the Evangelist is surrounded by a corona of energy, a spiritual oil slick...
...Morgan, the boldest book lover our own nation will ever see...
...And each of them brings us to a better understanding of Armenian Chnstian art from the eleventh to the seventeenth centunes During that period Armenia was regularly under siege or at war with its neighbors, as it is now, and this sad parallel casts a political shadow over the books, bindings, and vellum pages exhibited here in calm repose...
...While "Treasures in Heaven" reveals a distinctive Armenian culture, its strongest impression is of the culture Armenia has historically shared with the West As they give pleasure through their ingenuity, these images on exhibit revive senses that have been dulled by too many vanants of the Virgin and Child, reminding the viewer of manuscnpt art's ability to sound out hidden depths of the Chnstian tradition...
...In the viewing these themes are so closely joined as to be indistinguishable politics prompts a mingling of cultures, which is reflected in the books themselves This is most clearly evident in the work of the thirteenth-century illustrator, T'oros Roshn Armenians translated Scripture and the liturgy from Greek and Synac into their own language soon after converting to Christianity in the fourth century, and Armenian notragir script is prominent in Roshn's brilliant canon tables (thematic indices of the Gospels), eight of which are on view At the same time, the tables' intricately patterned borders reflect the influence of Islamic abstraction The delicately modeled features of Mary in another work by Roshn, Presentation in the Temple, reveal the effects of Western Christian art, encountered when Armenians migrated to Cilicia after a prolonged Turkish invasion Important as these themes are, I found it more rewarding to ignore some of the expert commentary in order to focus on each illumination's essential structure, or iconography...
...In conflict with Turks and Mongols and in touch with the Christian West, Armenians were compelled to at once absorb Islamic and Western influences and to forge them into an inviolable 14 ART Armenian identity In "Treasures in Heaven," Armenia's multicultural implications are drawn out with subtlety and grace...
...Images from the Armenian folk-art tradition and the later Armenian diaspora (to present-day Iran, India, and elsewhere) are even stranger, in part because they are based on points of doctrine rather than incidents from the Scriptures proper If the Gladzor Gospels anticipate Caravaggio, these resemble posters from the heyday of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960sóbold, lurid, trembling, obsessed with death There's a Harrowing of Hell in which Chnst reaches across a snaky divide to Adam while smashing Satan's skull with the butt of the cross, and a Last Judgment in which Christ embraces Peter and Paul while flames advance toward the damned In an Ascension, Christ sports a giant halo in a rainbow of colors...
...The curators' account of Armenia as a nation of bibliophiles made the exhibit seem right at home in the mansion of J.P...

Vol. 121 • September 1994 • No. 15


 
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