Armenia as a `Hinge' of Cultures

The region's art and architecture reflects both East and West influences in the Middle Ages

ARMENIAN ART by Jean-Michel Thierry and, Patrick Donab'edian, Translated by C'elestine Dars, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 624 pp., $130 ARMENIA is an ancient civilization, but its art is a relatively recent discovery in Europe and North America.

Despite the conversion of the Armenian people to Christianity in the 4th century AD, Armenian art and architecture have been studied largely by Orientalists interested in the physical terrains and psychic spaces where East and West have met over the centuries.

Armenia is a ``hinge'' culture, linked by trade and politics to both Asia and Europe. Yet its art, particularly its Christian art, has strong affinities with Western art and architecture. The laudable aim of this book has been to portray the uniqueness of Armenian cultural expression, while suggesting its relevance to the Western tradition, especially during the Middle Ages.

The recent earthquake in Armenia pinpointed the culture in an area of the Soviet Union adjacent to the eastern border of Turkey. But the current geography of Armenia is somewhat deceiving. In ancient times, the Armenian people occupied part of the vast Anatolian plateau - what is now central and eastern Turkey. From that base, they frequently moved southward and westward.

Though located in seemingly remote, rugged country, Armenian civilization developed under difficult, often hostile, external political and religious pressures. It endured centuries of foreign rule by the Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and Russians. As a result, the historical boundaries of Armenia have been loose and variable. From the Middle Ages to the present, repression, uncertainty, and natural disaster caused the Armenian people to disperse around the globe.

At the outset of their monumental study, Patrick Donab'edian and Jean-Michel Thierry understood that Armenian history makes the word ``Armenian'' a sensitive adjective. Rather than limit their scope to Soviet Armenia, they wisely decided to ignore contemporary political boundaries.

``Armenian art is not art from Armenia,'' they advise, ``but that of the Armenian people.'' Most of the sites discussed in the text are located in modern Iran, Turkey, and the Soviet Union, but the authors also note that the Armenian diaspora brought Armenian culture to places like the Crimea, Poland, and Italy, and eventually, the United States.

Surprisingly little is known of the Armenian people before their conversion to Christianity. The material record shows influence from Persia, Greece, and Rome. The beautifully restored and richly decorated temple of the sun god Mithra at Garni typifies the flux of power in the area. It blends Greek and Roman architectural features in the service of a Persian diety.

CHRISTIAN Armenia is reminiscent of feudal Europe, with many barons and landholders sponsoring religious building. Among the treasures of the early Middle Ages is the Church of the Holy Cross at Alt`amar built from AD 915 to 921. Situated on a small island along the southern shore of Lake Van in Turkey, the church once adjoined the palace complex constructed for Gagik, king of the Armenian state of Vaspurakin. The outer walls of the pinkish limestone structure display a wealth of imaginative relief sculpture.

Two thickly sculptured bands or friezes cinch the building. The lowest one presents a vineyard dense with foliage and fruit. Amid the vegetation, farm workers labor, bears dance, and an occasional monster peeks through the leaves.

In the upper frieze, tucked under the jutting tile roof, running animals are interspersed among human faces.

Along the lowest part of the wall, where they are easily viewed, life-size representations delineate Bible stories, like that of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, and Jonah and the whale.

The church's exterior walls have become a Bible in stone, used, perhaps, to both proclaim faith and teach the illiterate.

The Church of the Holy Cross was constructed at about the same time as the beginning of the great medieval building complex at the Armenian capital at Ani. At its apogee, more than 100,000 people lived in this walled city and worshiped at its many churches.

Visiting Ani today, one is reminded of the enduring political realities of Armenian life. The site, which lies hard by the Turkish-Soviet border, is overlooked by Soviet sentries in watchtowers. One hopes that glasnost will ease restrictions at Ani for all tourists, but especially for Russians and Iranians of Armenian descent, who have generally been unable to visit this major site of their cultural heritage.

Mural painting was banned for a time at Ani because it was feared that it would lead congregations toward Greek Catholicism - and the power nexus of the Byzantine world. Though wall painting was subsequently permitted, it is in manuscript illustration that medieval Armenian artists excelled. Indeed, manuscript illumination was central to religious life. Armenian Christians considered the manuscript as an offering to God.

More than 20,000 Armenian manuscripts, mostly gospels, are held in private and public libraries around the world. The wide range of subjects and abundant visual invention found in the manuscripts defy generalization. In some examples, naive drawing skills are augmented by a dramatic use of strong color contrasts. Other specimens, like the ``Gospel of Queen Keran,'' allude to the existence of sophisticated scriptoria, versed in the mannered elegance of the international Italian style.

This may well be the most comprehensive volume on Armenian art and architecture yet to be published. Certainly it is the most generously illustrated. Nearly 1,000 color and black-and-white pictures enrich its pages. The architectural photographs are carefully thought out. Where possible, they depict buildings in their geographic settings.

Even when the going gets rough in the occasionally pedantic text, the images excite a palpable sense of discovery. If current events have drawn a portrait of Armenia as a land of sorrows, ``Armenian Art'' offers a commensurate view of cultural tenacity and singular artistic achievement.

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