Armenia! at the Met disrupts established views on the Ancient World
By Laura L. Constantine
It was the highlight of the 2018 Armenian cultural calendar, the culmination of a life’s work for a curator extraordinaire, and the pivotal moment when Armenian Art took its rightful place in the pantheon of ancient cultures that shaped the civilized world.
Hailed by the New York Times as a “show for the ages” that received the “blockbuster” treatment and described in the Wall Street Journal as a “celebration of beauty that is also a religious act,” the Armenia! exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened to the public this past September and will run through January 13, 2019 to include celebrations of Armenian Christmas. Yet within days, the show had already exceeded all expectations of its capacity to astonish and intrigue the millions of unsuspecting museum goers who pass through the world class institution every year.
Intricately carved colossal khachkars, radiantly-hued illuminated manuscripts, elaborate tapestries, ornately woven ceremonial garments, gem-encrusted reliquaries and decorative adornments wrought of precious metals, hewed stone or honed woods collectively elevated Armenian culture from historical footnote to bold exclamation point. The Armenia! logotype proved itself an apt expression for that moment of revelation when a vibrant and sophisticated culture emerges from the sands of time with all its lustre, brilliance and genius intact—a vivid case in point for the perpetual state of regeneration and renewal that defines the Armenian spirit.
A minimalist-style installation bathed in the muted lighting and mystical shadows of a 5th century Armenian monastery and accentuated with the undertones of fervent Armenian liturgical chants, Armenia! transported visitors to a world hitherto known mainly to Armenian historians, theological scholars, and private and public collectors of medieval antiquities. With priceless treasures drawn from across the globe and showcased together for the first time, Armenia! presents an advanced society inspired by a reverence for and connection to the Divine. Of the 140-plus featured marvels crafted with meticulous intricacy, each item helped trace the development of a distinctive culture spanning 17 centuries and, at its height, wielding its influence along the great trade routes preceding the discovery of the New World.
Occupying eight dedicated spaces located on prime museum real estate reserved for high profile exhibitions—Armenia! stood alongside the colossal halls of ancient Greece and Rome, unique in its sensibilities by virtue of its religion and location at the crossroads of East and West. Given the tumultuous history that was to follow this golden age of Armenia, the exhibition also speaks to the dedication of the Armenian Church to guard and preserve these exalted objects from plunder and oblivion over successive invasions, conquests and attempted annihilation.
By all accounts, the singular force behind this massive undertaking is Helen C. Evans, PhD, the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine Art at the Met. The co-curator of the museum’s 1997 Glory of Byzantium exhibition, Evans’ dissertation on medieval Armenian art within the Byzantium context informed her appreciation for Armenia’s unrepresented contribution to world art.
At a private opening reception attended by the museum’s leadership, Armenian clergy, dignitaries from Armenia, as well as members of the Armenian-American community, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians praised Evans as “a true bearer of the torch of art and culture among us” and presented her with the highest award of the Armenian Apostolic Church bestowed upon laity. His Holiness also distilled the entire enterprise to its essential purpose: “All the items that we proudly display here reflect what we cherish, and they tell the story of our history and destiny. The relics and artifacts, all this beautiful art, make absolutely clear what we, the Armenians, have contributed to the world’s cultural heritage.”