The Armenian Option
The Armenian Option

The Armenian Option

What might a North American Christianity inspired by Armenia look like?

Appears in Spring 2019
The Armenian Option
Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, edited by Helen Evans, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2018. 352 pp.

The twin depressions of the 9/11 memorial, titled Reflecting Absence, sink into Manhattan’s body like fang marks left by a departed cobra. All that is left of those who died in the attacks are names dutifully listed along the perimeter, where flowers are placed on their respective birthdays. But it has been nearly two decades since the attack, and with every passing year, those lost lives are thought about less and less. After all, many of the family members whom the victims left behind have slipped into the void of death themselves.

Rattled by this thought, we lift our eyes and see only Calatrava’s four-billion-dollar winged terminal station in the distance, resembling less a dove of peace than a descending bird of prey. The neoclassical comfort of St. Paul’s chapel is too far off in the distance to be noticed. The thought of death, beckoned by the memorial, then creeps closer. We too will one day plummet with an ugly thud into death’s concrete pit, the floor of which the memorial’s designers cleverly conceal from our view. Hence it appears disconcertingly bottomless.

But that is only when the water is off. Indeed, the memorial’s creators, Michael Arad and Peter Walker, could not have anticipated such an intrusion in their design. The cascading water, intended to offer a consoling effect, is intentionally blocked on blustery days on the north memorial site, lest visitors be splashed or slip. It is such interference that turns the northern depression into a dry and jagged neo-brutalist abyss.

But to the relief of visitors, the same winds on the very same day do not affect the south tower memorial, where the water still flows as the designers intended. There, the pit becomes a lovely pool, graced with dancing waves generously spilling over thirty-foot granite cliffs. Hydraulics dance in step with the unpredictable wind; falling autumn leaves caught in the current are taken for one last lovely ride. This void is not empty—it is full. Here is art so evocative it even lends visitors the courage to die. Like the recycled water that is pumped back through the memorial, perhaps death is not even final. Refreshed by the thought, we look up from the south recession to see the dome of the soon-to-be-completed (we hope!) St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. The original was destroyed in the tower’s collapse, but now—despite financial setbacks—the church is being slowly brought back to life, as will, according to ancient hopes, the attack victims themselves.

The accident of these unequal depressions—one wet and the other dry—offers a helpful interpretive key to Manhattan, especially its art. Every museum, every exhibition and outdoor installation, tends to be approached by viewers whose critical faculties gravitate toward the dry north pit or the reflective south pool. Take the Hilma af Klint show at the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed spiralling Guggenheim Museum, for example. Art critics impatient with spirituality will find a sickeningly ample instance of the increasing religious discourse in the art world that they are powerless to stop; others, however, will see it as af Klint’s attempt to access God through colour and shape, the very God who (theosophists like af Klint frequently forget) is numbered among the humans in the jostling streetscape outside the museum.

Or consider the Andy Warhol show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Many will see in From A to B and Back Again an idolatrous sacralization of pop culture, the trivialization of violence, a merciless mirror of consumer frivolity. Others will consider how religious imagery, when introduced into the cement mixer of Warhol’s imagination, proves resistant, even stalling the pop art machine. The show culminates, after all, with a camouflage-concealed Christ. Whether the waterworks are off or on makes the difference, and—critically speaking of course—we may need to toggle between the two approaches to fully evaluate what we see.

The interpretive lessons conveyed by the 9/11 memorial were especially helpful when viewing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on, of all subjects, Armenian religious art. The exhibition has closed, but it survives in a catalogue so beautiful that it nearly replicates a visit. Armenia does not immediately spring to mind as a fountainhead of Christian sculpture, architecture, and manuscript illumination, which is exactly the point of the exhibition. Decades ago many assumed the Byzantine Empire to be a cultural backwater as well, a perception that Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Helen Evans obliterated through a series of blockbuster exhibitions that borrowed Byzantine icons, vestments, and tapestries from around the world. Having laid this groundwork, the same curator’s Armenia! exhibition is therefore something for which audiences are finally prepared.

But none of that will matter, I expect, to viewers for whom the interpretive waterworks are stalled. For them, the exhibition offers fresh fodder for Christianity’s affaire de couer with political power. Here is a nation that adopted the faith (in 301 or 314—the date is debated) before Constantine’s late-life conversion, and well before Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire in 380. Accordingly, the case of Armenia seems to confirm that wherever Christianity goes it becomes ineluctably political, complete with liturgical trappings to dupe the faithful, sacred “relics” that are probably just animal bones, and dazzling tapestries that hypnotize naïve, churchgoing women. (The fact that women so often wove the tapestries is conveniently ignored.) But we brave moderns are different—critical enough to pull back those seductively stitched curtains, exposing the power game of priestcraft that generates every religious show.

But when the water is flowing as it should, everything changes. Whatever Constantine’s motive for conversion, the story of how the Armenian King Tiridates the Great (r. 287–330) came to Jesus is very different, and considerably more interesting. The king fell in love with a Christian nun, Hripsime, who rejected his advances and was consequently killed. The result was that Tiridates morphed, much like Nebuchadnezzar before him, into a wild animal. A depiction of this boar-headed ruler meets viewers in a fourth/fifth-century stela that begins the exhibition. But Gregory the Illuminator (257–331) is carved on this pillar as well. Gregory confronted the penitent Tiridates, who resumed human form, converted to Christianity, and brought his nation along with him. If Constantine’s eventual conversion was spurred by a cross and the words “in this sign, conquer,” Armenia’s was spurred by a nun who refused to be conquered by an assailant who was ultimately redeemed.

So it was that Christianity came to the land of the Magi in national form. To translate Christian documents into local patterns of thought and speech, an original Armenian alphabet was developed, fusing Greek and Syriac—an alphabet that is still in use today. In the fifth century, as the Council of Chalcedon was being debated in the Byzantine Empire, Armenians were battling Zoroastrian Persians to win the right to be Christian, which they did at the Battle of Avarayr (451). It is not surprising, therefore, that Armenia felt inadequately represented at Chalcedon, and consequently demurred from its dictates. Like the other Christians in their Oriental Orthodox family, the Armenians kept a safe distance from both Constantinople and Rome, though claiming equal legitimacy—boasting not only apostolic succession (via the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew) but also a lineage stretching back to Noah before that. Armenia is, after all, at the base of Mount Ararat, traditional landing place of the ark. This independence, solidified in the sixth-century councils of Dvin, inaugurated Armenia’s golden age. Countless stones were carved into crosses; many a sheep gave its hide to bring Bibles, histories, and prayer books to colourful life. Most impressive of all were those upside-down-ice-cream-cone-domed churches, Armenia’s architectural signature. One Armenian city, Ani, even boasted the (admittedly exaggerated) figure of “1,001 churches.” For all the problems that come with money and power, these are also the sine qua non of lasting art.

With the arrival of the Muslims and the Mongols, this experiment of a Christian nation experimented with new tactics for survival. Armenians became not conquerors but explorers, masters of trade. They founded centres of learning, such that the thirteenth-century monastery of Gladzor was called a “second Athens.” Manuscripts from these Christian liberal arts colleges (we might cheekily call them) fill the exhibition. They illustrate not only biblical subjects but philosophy and literature as well. These pages have a distinctive style—halos, for example, are frequently soft-edged and squiggly rather than spiked and jagged, illustrative of ever-fluid Armenian strategies for endurance. The Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, to take one instance, may not have been able to beat the Mongols, so they secured the first Christian peace treaty with them instead.

Armenians negotiated with Orthodox and Catholic powers as well, especially during the Crusades. They were in but not of the empires. When the Ottoman Empire emerged and expanded, Armenia suffered greatly, but its networks also increased. As the coffeehouse—that phenomenon so beloved to us today—emerged from Ottoman urban centres, Armenians were key participants, fuelling this intellectual culture with defences of the faith, but with love ballads as well. These urbane Armenian traders were “the only Eurasian community of merchants to operate simultaneously and successfully . . . [in] Islamicate Eurasia (Mughal, Ottoman, and Safavid), Muscovite Russia, Qing China, and all the major European seaborne empires.” Nor were their churches any less impressive than those further west. Every time I show a slide of the dazzling Armenian Cathedral of Isfahan (1664) in an art history class, I have come to expect an audible gasp.

Even some Protestant influence could be detected in this exhibition. In a series of printed seventeenth-century Armenian manuscripts, the pictures of God the Father that bedevil the show (and which Hilma af Klint’s abstractions were resisting) are finally replaced with the tetragrammaton, as befits the undepictable first person of the Trinity.

But the best surprise of the Armenia! exhibition is the blue-skinned Jesus that stares back at us from a series of miniatures by the artist T’oros the Deacon (late thirteenth–early fourteenth century) from Gladzor. It is the job of curators and catalogue writers to be fastidiously cautious, avoiding far-flung connections, explaining this startling effect by the desire to lavish Christ and other holy figures with the expensive colour blue. But reviewers can perhaps get away with suggesting that Jesus here looks a lot like Krishna. Considering the vast trade networks of the Armenians even into India, this seems possible—not as a pluralizing amalgamation, of course, but as an evangelistic tactic.

Or perhaps, to borrow more recent cultural associations with the colour blue, Christ’s complexion here shows his sadness, knowing as he does what the Armenian nation—target of the twentieth century’s inaugural genocide—will eventually endure. But Armenians are with us still, of course. The gold cone dome of the Armenian cathedral of St. Vartan’s is a familiar New York site. After services there, on the Sunday afternoon I visited this exhibition, Armenian Christians crowded into the Met, repeatedly reminding their tour guide in wonderfully thick accents that all this material will need to be returned to Armenia.

The last image in this exhibition is a map of the known world, made in Amsterdam in 1695, the first world map entirely in the Armenian language. On it, North America, in particular the part where I reside, is as yet terra incognita. But Armenia offers a model for what Christianity might look like on this continent nonetheless. It is a tantalizing vision, and one vastly different in approach from the kind of Christianity deployed to aggressively respond to the 9/11 attacks.

What might a North American Christianity inspired by Armenia look like? It would be less belligerent but by no means spineless—more interested in building alliances than empires. It would boast lasting beauty, but not the kind that can fit into expected stylistic grooves. Armenian-inspired Christianity would be less stunned or surprised than strategic when it comes to the inevitable reality of other ethnicities and faiths. Rather than being paralyzed by tragic violence, it would remember that an entire Christian nation was born from a nun resisting a man’s advances; and that there is hope even for porcine, misogynist heads of state.

We tend to selectively read Christian history to confirm our suspicions, but a Christianity inspired by Armenia would not fit into expected “Roman Catholic,” “Eastern Orthodox,” or “evangelical” silos any more than Armenia itself can. Borrowing from the gorgeous catalogue, we might call such coffee-fuelled, Armenian-option Christians “transimperial cosmopolitans,” nimbly negotiating and trading with every known centre of culture on the globe. Familiar with suffering and divested of power, they travel light, following the unexpected blue-skinned Jesus who glides into the abyss with us, and back.

Matthew Milliner
Matthew Milliner

Matthew J. Milliner teaches art history at Wheaton College.


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