Religious, artistic relics of Cilicia commemorate Armenian struggle

The history of the Armenian people marks one of the most bloody instances of 20th-century genocide. Their massive expulsion by the Turks in 1915 came as the shameful climax in the nation’s long course of adventures and strugglse against repeated threats by enemy nations. The tenacity and the fight for independence, which have both become virtually synonymous with the Armenians, is what gives «Armenian Relics of Cilicia,» currently held at the Benaki Museum, such symbolic and richly layered meaning. In some ways, the exhibit can be viewed as a tribute to the nation’s renaissance despite the genocide, as well as a reminder of two important anniversaries, one marking 1,700 years since the adoption of Christianity by the Armenians and the other celebrating the nation’s independence 11 years ago. The exhibition contains religious relics from the Museum of the Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon, where the Catholicosate of Cilicia sought refuge at the time of the persecution and has its See to this day. Rescued by the Armenian refugees and carried by them first to Aleppo and then to Antelias, the objects originally belonged to the Armenian Church of St Sophia in Sis, the city which was Cilicia’s seat of the catholicos (the supreme prelate) for seven centuries. The exhibition also includes three important manuscripts from the 12th-14th century which come from another source: the Armenian Monastery of the Mekhitarists in Venice. Essentially, the exhibition traces the history of the Armenians of Cilicia (the region of southeast Asia Minor along the Mediterranean Sea south of the Taurus Mountains) from the time of the foundation of the medieval kingdom of Lesser Armenia in the 12th century until the 1915 genocide. Because this is an exhibition that views history through religious icons, a knowledge of iconography and ecclesiastical dogma is central to its understanding. This is what makes it a rather abstruse exhibition and is why the catalog is a necessary aid for its appreciation. Curated and fully researched by Anna Ballian, curator in the department of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art at the Benaki, the exhibition is also organized with the support of the Armenian Orthodox Church of Greece and with the help of the Karabet Kalfayan family. It is supplemented by a catalog (both in English and Greek) with extensive and informative essays by international contributors such as Tom Sinclair, professor of Turkish studies of the University of Cyprus, Helen Evans, who is curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Ioanna Rapti and Anna Ballian. Structured in categories to ease accessibility, the exhibition contains illuminated manuscripts, coins, church silver, incunabula and hieratic vestments, covering the period from the 12th to the 19th century. The strangeness of certain objects make them objects of curiosity even for the non-specialist. These include a number of right-arm reliquaries whose veneration and symbolism were extremely important in medieval times. (During the last centuries of the Byzantine empire their role was superseded by the veneration of icons). The arm reliquaries of St Gregory the Illuminator (the founder of the Armenian Church), St Sylvester, St Nicholas and St Barsauma are in fact counted among the most important treasures in possession of the Church of Cilicia. Each reliquary shows the differing influences on the Armenian Church: the reliquary of St Gregory indicates the connection with Christianity, of St Sylvester with the Latin church, of St Nicholas with the Byzantine church and that of St Barsauma can be traced to Syrian Christianity. (St Barsuama was a monophysite saint whose cult prevailed among the Syrian Christians during the 12th century). Another important object in the exhibition is the silver gilt cover of the Gospels of Bardzrberd from 1254, which is a period of full independence for the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia subsequently interrupted by the pressures of the Mameluk dynasty from the 1260s on. The cover of the manuscript was commissioned by a bishop named Stephen for the catholicos Konstantin I, a well-known patron of the arts who became associated with most of the manuscripts produced at the time. It is of an exceptional quality not to be found in any of the Byzantine covers preserved up to our time. The decoration on the cover bears some similarities with manuscript covers of the Syro-Cypriot area at the time of the Crusades. On the back of the cover, the depiction of Christ surrounded by the apocalyptic symbols of the evangelists (the angel, the eagle, the lion and the bull) is particularly characteristic of Western manuscripts. Another fine specimen of Armenian religious art is an illuminated manuscript known as the Skevra Gospel, named after the Skevra Scriptorium which was established in the late 12th century and produced the finest Armenian manuscripts at the time. The manuscripts’s motifs illustrate the complex theological currents of the time and are a careful blend of Western and Byzantine influences. The decoration used for the canon tables is notable for its intricate floral and animal motifs and is a typical example of Cilician illumination. Votive steeles are also impressive. One from the 12th century, with the typical form of the cross in high relief, is an example of how iconography reflects the cosmopolitan environment of the time. The fleur-de-lys pattern at the end of the cross’s arms is a Western influence brought to the Christian East during the time of the Crusades. Like the rest of the treasures shown at the exhibition, it cannot be fully appreciated without a knowledge of Armenia’s history and the complexities of ecclesiastical dogma. Still, seen together the exhibits form a symbolic tribute to a nation, its endurance and the moving struggle of its people. The exhibition will run at the Benaki Museum through December 9.

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