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Armenian Studies Program

Arts of Armenia-Introduction

The study of Armenian art began at the turn of twentieth century. It was brutally interrupted by the disaster that struck this people during World War I. The land on which this art was created and the people who fashioned it were destroyed. Most of former Armenia now rests deserted; the centuries old architectural monuments are disintegrating because of abandon and neglect.

The promising scholarly activity of the late nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century in such Armenian centers as Tiflis, Constantinople and Etchmiadzin was interrupted. The study of Armenian art was especially neglected. After 1915 the major scholars were few and living in the diaspora; Catholicos Garagine Hovsepian (?1952) and especially professor Sirarpie Der Nerséssian (1898-1989) were the most notable.

Yet, by 1975 the first International Symposium on Armenian Art was held in Bergamo, Italy; the fifth symposium in the series met in Venice in 1988. Major archival projects have been undertaken in the Diaspora like the Armenian Architectural Archive, which has issued seven volumes of microfiche images representing about 42,000 photographic documents, the Index of Armenian Art, which concentrates on miniature paintings, and the repertory of inscribed Armenian carpets.

Publications have also multiplied. Professor Der Nerséssian's volumes on miniature painting have provided the methodology and the standards with which medieval Armenian painting must be studied. The albums of miniatures from the collections of the Matenadaran in Erevan, the Mekhitarists Brotherhoods of Venice and Vienna, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Armenian church museum in New Julfa have provided the visual context for the study of Armenian miniatures. The Polytechnic of Milan and the Armenian Academy of Sciences are responsible for the 20 volumes in the series Documents of Armenian Architecture. The beautiful albums on Armenian khach'k'ars and church vessels and textiles in the Treasury of Etchmiadzin published under the auspices of the Catholicos Vazgen I have exposed art historians to the skill and fecundity of Armenian sculptors, and the riches of metalwork and textiles. The catalogues of exhibits of inscribed Armenian rugs are excellent guides to the art of Armenian weaving. Finally, a number of sumptuous volumes on the art of Armenia have recently provided an overview of the variety and splendor of the artistic heritage of this old nation of the Near East.

This collection of slides and the accompanying commentaries are intended to provide a general notion of the arts of Armenia. It is designed for students with no previous knowledge of art history, but can also be used profitably by individuals who are more advanced in their studies. Works of art have been divided into categories according to media. The ensemble is focused on the ancient and medieval periods during which Armenians were innovators in both architecture and painting. Modern works, that is those of the nineteenth century and after, have been intentionally omitted except in the subsections devoted to musical instruments, Armenian printing, ceramics, textiles and metalwork.

Major emphasis has been placed on Armenian architecture and miniature painting because they have dominated artistic production, have show a consistent development over the centuries, and because a representative body of works from various periods has survived. Sculpture, including the famous carved cross-stones, metalwork and coins, ceramics, wood carving, and textiles are also separately treated. Music and printing have been added, even though they are not always considered among the fine arts.

The distinguishing traits of Armenian art are only discernible from a careful examination of the monuments or objects themselves. For this project "Armenian art" is understood simply as that produced in Armenia or by Armenians. This definition presents no difficulty for objects of the ancient and medieval period contained in this collection. But the question of whether art produced in a diaspora can be considered Armenian art has been debated in recent years. No simple answer can be given.

Similarly, no simple list of the distinguishing characteristics of Armenian art can be made, since it shares much with the art of its neighbors near and far. Styles in architecture and painting varied from region to region in Armenia, and, like all art, from century to century. Therefore, it is foolish to be categorical about what Armenian art is because it is so diverse, so varied, so changing. Each medium reveals peculiar characteristics. Within a medium -- for instance painting -- each school, each century, produces a special range of effects unique to it; thus, broad generalizations can only be proposed after the totality of available works of art of the school or period are studied.

Certain generalizations are, however, apparent from even a casual look at the assembled collection. Armenian architecture was devoted to building in stone and the solving of problems associated with the heavy weight of stone roofs and domes. Armenian painting, like ceramics and carpets, always favored rich and vivid colors. Artists seemed to love elaborate decorations, often very intricate in design. Finally, Armenian art and artists seemed always open to influences from neighboring traditions: They absorbed and transformed new ideas as quickly as they discovered them.

The eclectic quality of Armenian art make it both complex and diverse, encompassing ideas from the Orient and the Occident from the Classical and Byzantine world and the vast realm of Islam. Yet, despite the interest in other traditions, Armenian art managed to remain independent and was rarely imitative. Art had a special role in Armenian life. The commissioning of an illustrated manuscript, an altar curtain or a church vessel was considered a pious act, as was its execution. Most works of art had a Christian meaning. Each was a prayer to God. 

Whether a stone cathedral, a manuscript miniature, a cross-stone, or an embroidered chalice cover, every object displayed both artistic beauty based on color and line and an inner symbolic glory based on its meaning or use. In beholding and studying these works modern viewers pay their respect to the creative reverence of Armenian artists and creators of the past.