NEW YORK — Prof. Thomas F. Mathews, emeritus professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, recently gave a talk on the role of Armenian architecture in the international arena, at Columbia University. The event was sponsored by the Armenian Center at Columbia University and co-sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and Columbia’s Art History Department.
Mathews, along with Dr. Helen Evans of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had been the curator of the 1994 exhibition, “Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts,” featuring Armenian illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library and Museum, with curatorial assistant Dr. Sylvie Merian. Using many images, he pointed out that there are two recent major studies — 2001 (by Christina Maranci) and 2007 (by Judith McKenzie) — which have an important bearing on Armenian architecture. And in the study of Medieval art, there is a continuing controversy on the “rise of the cult of icons,” he noted.
In Armenian literature, there are voluminous sources of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity. However, the most neglected treatise is the Treatise on Images by Vertanes of Kertogh, which has been translated by Dr. Sirarpie Der Nersessian. An article on this treatise was published a few years ago by Mathews in the Revue des Etudes Armenienne, Vol 31, 2008-2009. “Vertanes is the Pliny of Armenia,” stated Mathews. His seventh-century Intellectual Dialogue on the Christian Use of Icons, written in Dvin, is the earliest defense of icons, and
Vertanes mentions the wood materials and even the pigments used with Persian names. These include icons of Christ, Peter and Paul, the Mother of God and Saints Gregory and Hripsime.
Mathews said that the next important intellectual in this field was John of Damascus who was secretary to the patriarch of Jerusalem in the early eighth century. “The Byzantine rulers forbade the use of icons because the people were worshipping the icons almost as idols and not as symbols of Christianity or the Christian saints,” he explained. “This was the cause of a huge conflict between the Greeks and Armenians, both doctrinally and ecclesiastically,” he said. “The icon phenomenon is larger than Byzantium.”
There is no evidence of icons in Armenia before the Arabs sacked Dvin in 640 AD, because Armenian icons were painted on wood panels, which are perishable, he said. In Egypt, the wood panels in St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai survived because of the dry climate and because the monks protected them.
There were stone icons in Armenia, which due to their weight did not travel and their iconography was inspired by the wood icons transported to Armenia. The stone relief in the Odzun church, which is made of different stone than the rest of the church, dates before the eighth century, the scholar said. “This relief was widely used in the Byzantine world.” There is a carved relief on a four-sided stone stele at Harichavank where Mother Mary is wearing a necklace, and which has been compared with the necklace on the Maria Regina icon in Rome, 561-579. There is also archeological evidence of stone reliefs at Louvre, France, which were copies of Christian icons, and inspired by the wood icons in Armenia. “Obviously all this iconography circulated because they were painted on wooden panels.”
The Dvin Crucifixion, which is three feet high with a double-armed cross, reveals the body of Christ gone, but His face enshrined in a halo of glory. There are also horsemen on the side. This cross with the human face “is the most complete venerating image,” Mathews said, adding that the crucifixion “is the first and most formidable problem of theology. And this ‘Christ in Glory’ iconography is found from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, Armenia and Constantinople to Rome.”
Armenia is part of this larger world, which centers on this concept of Christ on the cross. Mathews believes that the iconography for the Dvin relief was based on a second-century wooden triptych from Egypt. This would explain how the iconography of the horses got to Dvin: on a wooden icon, the crucifix icon is on a cross with a pair of horsemen.
For Armenia, “there aren’t ancient treatises. There is art and sculpture. However, iconography in Armenia still has to be investigated,” he said in conclusion.
Following a brisk question-and-answer period, Mark Momjian, the chairman of the Columbia Armenian Center Board of Directors, who with Prof. Zainab Al Bahrani, head of Columbia’s Art History Department, welcomed the attendees and presented Mathews with a copy of the New Testament, 1880, published in Armenian in Constantinople, in appreciation of his lecture.