The Bodleian's winter exhibition celebrates over 2,500 years of Armenian history. Over one hundred items are on display, from King Tigranes II the Great's coins, through to the treasured objects of the 1915 genocide survivors.
An illuminated Bible from 1648 showing ‘The Throne Vision of Ezekiel.’ The illumination represents the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God seated on a throne-chariot carried by four living beings, man or angel, lion, ox and eagle. These were later re-interpreted as symbols of the four evangelists, ‘carrying’ Christ-God.
By Alexi Baker
Armenia: Masterpieces from an Enduring Culture is a groundbreaking exhibition on Armenian culture timed to mark the centenary of the genocide of 1915. It explores more than two millennia of achievements and endurance as well as dislocation and suffering.
“The combination of commemoration with celebration is very apt in an Armenian context,’ says Theo Maarten van Lint, the Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies at Oxford and co-curator of the exhibition. “Embracing life and creating a meaningful joyous future despite the sorrows inflicted upon them is very much the Armenians’ attitude, one to which the organisers of the exhibition wholeheartedly subscribe.”
A lectionary containing scripture readings and prayers read throughout the year. This copy is showing the adoration of the Magi on the left. The right-hand page relates the announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The manuscript dates from 1632.
The University of Oxford has had a long association with Armenian history and culture, developing rich but rarely-exhibited collections over the centuries and endowing the only professorship in the country in Armenian Studies fifty years ago. “The University of Oxford has been engaged with Armenia and its culture for over four hundred years, ever since Archbishop Laud, the then Chancellor of the University, first donated Armenian manuscripts to the Bodleian Library,” explains Professor van Lint.
For several years, van Lint has worked with Bodleian staff and with the support of donor Raffy Manoukian to realise his long-time dream of an Armenian exhibition at Oxford. The team wove together objects and installations as diverse as coins from the first century BCE, brilliantly illuminated medieval manuscripts, the only known copy of the first book printed in Iran in 1638, footage of the Oxford Armenian Choir singing a hymn from the Divine Liturgy, and a brief video in which Professor van Lint introduces the exhibition.
The Narek - this holy book is an 18th century copy of The Book of Lamentation containing mystical prayer poems by Saint Gregory of Narek. This is the most venerated book in Armenian culture after the Bible, and healing powers are ascribed to it. It is believed to protect the family with whom it resides. It is pictured with devotional items – a cross, prayer images and two pouches containing earth from the owners’ Armenian home in the Ottoman Empire before they were driven out in 1915.
Historical recreations and new technologies have also enhanced the exhibition. Curators and conservators worked with the artist Anita Chowdry to make gold and lapis blue pigments, underlining the effort that went into making illuminated manuscripts. Meanwhile, hyperspectral imaging revealed a hidden devil, which pious readers had rubbed out of a gospel centuries ago.
“There are so many sumptuously illuminated and simply breathtaking manuscripts in the Bodleian’s collection, that it wasn’t easy to narrow it down,” says co-curator Robin Meyer, who is also researching Classical Armenian as a doctoral student at Wolfson College and is also a lector in Latin and Greek Languages at the University. “In the end, we often chose not only to exhibit the most visually exciting pieces, but also manuscripts and books that would have featured in the everyday life of less exalted members of society.”
In addition to revelations about the distant past, the exhibition features a number of treasured possessions loaned by Armenian families, many reflecting the tumult of modern events. For example, there is a much-travelled samovar with cups and saucers, that has moved across many borders for generations of the same family and an 18th century printed copy of the 1000 year old Book of Lamentation by the Armenian Apostolic Church's Saint Grigor Narekac‘i,, that serves as a holy protector for the family that has cherished it for generations.
Dr. Gillian Evison, the Head of the Bodleian Libraries Oriental Section, speaks movingly of the emotions imbued in such objects. She was particularly drawn to a needlework band made by the mother of the poet and artist Krikor Momdjian, which appears in and alongside Momdjian’s video installation The Blessing, filmed in the magnificent cave-monastery of Geghard in Armenia, and has been donated to the Bodleian in honour of his mother. Dr. Evison says, “This rich and vibrant culture has been brought to life for me by the wonderful Armenian families who shared their life stories during the making of the exhibition, and whose treasures are now on display in the gallery.”
The exhibition is free to view from now until 28th February 2016 at the Weston Library
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All images © Bodleian Library