Influence of Armenian religious art discussed at Columbia University
Published: Wednesday June 20, 2012
New York - Professor Thomas F. Mathews, Emeritus Professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts recently delivered an engrossing talk on the role of Armenian art on the international arena.
The event took place at Columbia University on April 17, and was sponsored by the Armenian Center at Columbia University, and co-sponsored by NAASR, and Columbia's Art History Department.
The scholar, along with Dr. Helen Evans of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had been the curator of the magnificent 1994 exhibition Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated manuscripts, featuring priceless Armenian illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library and Museum in NY, with curatorial assistant Dr. Sylvie Merian.
Using many images, he pointed out that there are two recent major studies - in 2001 by Christina Maranci, and in 2007 by Judith McKenzie - which have an important bearing on Armenian architecture. And in the study of Medieval art, there is a continuing controversy on the "rise of the cult of icons," he noted.
The earliest defense of icons
In Armenian literature, there are voluminous sources of Armenia's conversion to Christianity. However, the most neglected treatise is the "Treatise on Images" by Vertanes of Kertogh, which has been translated by the renowned scholar Dr. Sirarpie Der Nersessian. An article on this very important treatise was published a few years ago by Professor Matthews in the Revue des Etudes Armenienne, Vol 31, 2008-2009.
"Vertanes is the Pliny of Armenia," stated Professor Mathews. His 7th century "Intellectual Dialogue on the Christian Use of Icons", written in Dvin is the earliest defense of icons, and Vertanes mentions the wood materials and even the pigments used with Persian names. These include icons of Christ, Peter and Paul, the Mother of God, and Saints Gregory and Hripsime.
Professor Mathews revealed that the next important intellectual in this field was John of Damascus who was Secretary to the Patriarch of Jerusalem in the early 8th century.
"The Byzantine rulers forbade the use of icons because the people were worshiping the icons almost as idols and not as symbols of Christianity or the Christian saints," he explained. "This was the cause of a huge conflict between the Greeks and Armenians, both doctrinal and ecclesiastical," he said, adding, "the icon phenomenon is larger than Byzantium."
There is no evidence of icons in Armenia before the Arabs sacked Dvin in 640 A.D., because the Armenian icons were painted on wood panels which are perishable, he continued. In Egypt, the wood panels in St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai survived because of the dry climate, and because the monks protected them.
There were stone icons in Armenia which due to their weight did not travel, and their iconography was inspired by the wood icons transported to Armenia.
The stone relief in the Odzun church which is made of different stone than the rest of the church, dates before the 8th century, the scholar said.
"This relief was widely used in the Byzantine world." There is a carved relief on a four-sided stone stele at Harichavank where Mother Mary is wearing a necklace, and which has been compared with the necklace on the Maria Regina icon in Rome, 561 - 579.
There is also archeological evidence of stone reliefs at Louvre, France which were copies of Christian icons, and inspired by the wood icons in Armenia. "Obviously all this iconography circulated because they were painted on wooden panels."
The most complete venerating image
The spectacular Dvin Crucifixion which is three feet high with a double armed cross, reveals the body of Christ gone, but His face enshrined in a halo of glory. There are also horsemen on the side. This cross with the human face "is the most complete venerating image," Professor Mathews said, adding that the Crucifixion "is the first and most formidable problem of theology. And this ‘Christ in Glory' iconography is found from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, Armenia and Constantinople to Rome."
Armenia is part of this larger world of the international style which centers on this concept of Christ on the cross. Mathews believes that the iconography for the Dvin relief was based on a 2nd century wooden triptych from Egypt. This would explain how the iconography of the horses got to Dvin: on a wooden icon - the Crucifix icon in glory on a cross with a pair of horsemen. It traveled on wood from Egypt to Armenia.
For Armenia, "there aren't ancient treatises. There is art and sculpture. However, iconography in Armenia still has to be investigated," he said in conclusion.
Following a question and answer period, Mark Momjian, the Chairman of the Columbia Armenian Center Board of Directors, who with Professor Zainab Al Bahrani, head of Columbia's Art History Department, had welcomed the attendees, presented Professor Mathews with a copy of the New Testament, 1880, published in Armenian in Constantinople, in appreciation of his fascinating lecture.