For a moment the Armenians were unforgotten.

Both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times gave lavish coverage to the “Armenia!” exhibit, which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in September and runs till January 13.

And both noted the importance of Armenia in the story of Christianity. On any map of historic Christian capitals, Armenia — like Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople — merits a star. Armenia’s faith is inextricable from its culture. It is distinctive, defiant, and durable. 

It was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, and it did so in A.D. 301, when the Roman Empire was still actively persecuting the Faith.

Armenia is today, as it was in ancient times, situated at the convergence of many trade routes. It has served as a land bridge, first between the Persian and Roman Empires, and later between the Islamic world and Christendom. At various times it controlled ports on three major seas: the Mediterranean, Caspian, and Black.

Such a position has been a boon and a bane. Armenian culture is uniquely cosmopolitan, drawing equally from influences in the Far East and Far West. But, like all buffer zones, Armenia has suffered constant suspicion — often escalating to hostility — from the gigantic powers beyond its borders at either side.

The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit celebrates a deeply religious culture that has endured and triumphed, despite the ravages of conquest, influence, persecution, enforced poverty, and even genocide.

Among the items in “Armenia!” are “stelae,” commemorative stones that date from the earliest years of the nation’s Christianity. Their sculpted symbols testify to a piety that is Christ-centered, Trinitarian, biblical, and Marian. There are frequent allusions to Noah’s Ark, which, according to the Book of Genesis (8:4), came to rest on Mount Ararat, in Armenian territory.

The other star of Armenian art is St. Gregory the Illuminator, the fourth-century monk who converted the pagan King Tiridates in A.D. 301. Tiridates had made the mistake of trying to seduce a Christian nun, and then killing her and her companions when they resisted him. 

His sin earned him madness and bodily afflictions, from which only Gregory could deliver him. The story is told repeatedly in the exhibit, in icons, sculptures, silks, manuscripts, and architectural elements.

Armenian-American scholar Michael Papazian spoke to Angelus News about the significance of the Met exhibit. “This is the first major exhibit in a major Western museum devoted to the medieval art and culture of Armenia. It is a rare opportunity for someone to see so many important works gathered from collections all over the world in one museum gallery,” he said.

“The curator’s aim is to give greater attention to Armenian culture, which for so long has been considered of lesser importance in relation to other Eastern Christian traditions.”

Papazian is a professor of philosophy at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and has translated the works of another Armenian Gregory — St. Gregory of Narek, an Armenian monk of the 10th century, whom Pope Francis recently named a Doctor of the Church.

For Papazian, visiting the exhibit was a surprisingly emotional moment. “Not only the works of sacred art but also the liturgical music playing in the gallery made it a truly spiritual experience,” he said.

“I had seen the relic of the lance that pierced the side of Christ when I was in Armenia many years ago. At that time I was skeptical that this was a piece of the true lance. But for some reason this time, seeing it at the Met and reading the description, I trembled at the thought that this spear had touched the body of Christ and caused his blood to pour out.”

"The Holy Lance" on display at the Museum of Echmiadzin, Armenia. According to Armenian tradition, the lance used by the Roman centurion Longinus to pierce Christ’s side at the crucifixion was brought to Armenia by St. Thaddeus the apostle. It is currently part of the Armenia! exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Since the first millennium, Islamic conquests had reduced the territory and stature of the Armenians. It was the Ottoman Turks who sought to deliver a deathblow to the culture. Their systematic genocide of the Armenians (1909–1918) left 1.5 million dead and many more exiled.

Adolf Hitler looked to the Armenian genocide as a model for his campaign against Europe’s Jews. In one address he asked the rhetorical question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

In exile, however, the Armenians gathered and reconstituted communities that were distinctively Armenian. The Los Angeles area hosts the world’s largest population of Armenians outside Armenia. Armenians probably make up more than a third of the residents of Glendale. There are Armenian Catholic churches in both Glendale and Los Angeles.

St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Church in Glendale, California. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

These exiles took with them a few family artifacts — and the memory of their people, now told with surprising boldness, and rare Christian spirit, in the Met’s show. 

In the Wall Street Journal, critic Edward Rothstein drew a lesson for all peoples about the relationship between religion and beauty. “It is remarkable,” he wrote, “how deeply rooted our greatest art museums are in the religious realm. Artifacts reflecting profound faith — even those once used in the most sacred rituals — are at the foundation of these institutions. 

“Removed from their origins in worship, these relics, illuminations, reliquaries and statues settle into an afterlife in our secular aesthetic temples, making it clear that for their creators (as for many viewers) the celebration of beauty is also a religious act.”

The beauty of Armenian culture is Christian and distinct from any other culture on earth, drawing from the riches of many and synthesizing styles and ideas in surprising ways. But its beauty is hard won, at the cost of the lives of many martyrs. It is a supreme and sublime beauty made for the glory of God, and it surpasses anything produced merely for art’s sake.

This is one exhibit that has earned its exclamation point.

Mike Aquilina is the author of more than 50 books, including “A History of the Church in 100 Objects” and “The Fathers of the Church.” He is a contributing editor to Angelus.

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