By Florence Avakian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
NEW YORK — An Armenian monk from Greater Armenia, in the late 14th century wrote, “Jerusalem is the centre from which all laws, grace and prophecy emanate.”
Today, Jerusalem is a city of continuing and turbulent conflict among the proponents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But in the epic years of 1000 to 1400, it was home to many cultures, faiths and people, more so than at any other time in its history. And the Armenian contribution was profound.
Currently, there is a monumental exhibition of Jerusalem during this time period, entitled “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven,” showcasing the prominent role that it played in shaping its creative, universal and complex art of great beauty during these centuries.
The exhibition which runs until January 8, 2017, and features 200 works of art from 60 lenders worldwide, focuses on the important role that the Holy City played in shaping medieval art, and the enduring mark that this art left on the city. The exhibition is organized thematically into six sections — trade and tourism, diversity of people, religion, holy war, generosity of patrons, and the concept of Jerusalem as a city “situated at the gates of heaven.”
Armenians, probably from the 5th century on, were part and parcel of the Jerusalem story, both living in — and making pilgrimages to — the city. There is a 6th-century Armenian floor mosaic near the Damascus Gate displaying grapes, as well as birds which legend says carry the souls of the dead to heaven. It is believed that the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew started their journey to Armenia from Jerusalem.
In the 11th century, Armenians became allies of the Crusaders and attained new power following the latter’s conquest of Jerusalem. It is also significant that the wives of early Crusader rulers came from prominent Armenian families.
One of these was Queen Melisende whose mother was Armenian. She became well known for her relief work for Armenian and Syrian survivors as a result of the fall of Edessa in 1144. She is also connected to a celebrated Psalter due to her activity as a patron of churches and scriptoria.
Jack Soultanian, a prominent conservator at the Met, who traveled to Jerusalem with the exhibition’s conservators, calls the most meaningful work displayed that of the Gospel Book (cat.131), because of its “dedication to an Armenian Queen (Mariun), and the absolute charm of its illuminations.”
It was after Jerusalem fell in 638 to the Muslim Umayyad dynasty that the Armenian role mushroomed. By the 14th century, the Armenian clergy of the Brotherhood of St. James had achieved a special position among the world’s major Armenian church centers.
Starting in medieval times and continuing until the presetn, Armenians occupied the southwest quarter of the Old City with several churches. By the 12th century, they had built the Cathedral of St. James, and with the Byzantines and Franciscans had become the guardians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Today, Armenians still control parts of the Church of Nativity, and Holy Sepulchre, including the Chapel of St. Helene, mother of Constantine the Great which is also referred to as the Chapel of St. Gregory the Illuminator credited with converting Armenian King Trdat and the Armenians to Christianity in 301 AD.
The brilliantly-illustrated catalog, with contributions from more than 50 scholars from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, is published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Dr. Helen Evans, the curator of the Met’s Byzantine Department, is the co-author of the catalog. For years, she has championed Armenian art at the Met, and in 2018 will be opening a spectacular exhibition of Armenian art from all over the world at the Met.
Several years ago, Evans and Soultanian went to Armenia and were responsible for bringing the magnificent Khachkar which is on loan to the Met and is displayed in a prominent location of the museum.
Among the dozens of acknowledgments mentioned in the catalog are also the contributions of the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, and from the Patriarchate Archbishops Aris Shirvanian and Sevan Gharibian, Rev. Tiran Hakobyan and Rev. Samuel Aghoyan. The catalog discloses that never before had the Patriarchate sent treasures across the ocean.
Also mentioned are Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian and benefactor Aso Tavitian who played key roles in connecting the museum with the Jerusalem Patriarchate. And at the Library of Congress, Levon Avdoyan was an important figure, as well as Arms and Armor curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Pierre Terjanian.
Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas P. Campbell paid special tribute to Soultanian, calling him “a great ally, and diplomat, who demonstrated special expertise that made possible many of the most important loans.”
Campbell has written, “Ultimately there was more to medieval Jerusalem than East meets West. Ultimately, it bears witness to the crucial role that Jerusalem has played in shaping world culture, a lesson vital to our common history.”