Connecting the Stories of the Past in Armenian Art


As you step into the new exhibit at the Koppelman Gallery, the muted tone and items on display create an almost spiritual presence. It is quite on purpose: Armenian liturgical textiles are a reminder of a religiously based civilization which has faced erasure but which tenaciously survives.

Shining with semi-precious stones, gold thread and metallic appliques, the gallery’s textiles come from communities persecuted during the Armenian genocide of 1915-1922 and during the massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the 1890s. .

Hand-blocked silk, velvet and cotton embroidered fabrics dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries in the show Connection wires / Surviving objects are among the few remaining physical traces of these communities.

“These objects come from once thriving Armenian communities in Turkey – my own family among them – who were either deported or exterminated,” says exhibition organizer Christina Maranci, Professor Arthur H. Dadian and Ara T. Oztemel Armenian Art and Architecture in Tufts. “They are dense with meaning, emotion and lived experience.”

The exhibition is on view in the art galleries of Tufts University until December 5 and can be viewed in line.

A fragment of red and blue silk on cotton muslin embroidered with gold and silver threads, for example, bears an image that appears to be a praying nun. On the fabric is inscribed a dedication to Saint Barbara and the name of the person who sewed it two centuries ago. The designer, Katarinē, was a talented artist, as evidenced by her meticulous tailoring, which suggests devotion to the holy martyr that she painstakingly portrayed, Maranci says.

A saghavard, or priest’s crown, was adorned with metallic threads, sequins, and brass fittings on blue velvet. Capped with patterns of sunbeams and stars, he presided over services at Saint Stepanos, an important church in the thriving community of Evdokia (now Tokat, Turkey) for a century before the genocide.

It is named after its donor, Martiros Pōyachean, who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the early 1800s. Like the Katarinē inscription, the words on the crown reveal Martiros’ devotion as well as his ability to travel far from home. him.

Other pieces in the exhibition, such as a painted altar curtain from India or Iran or the batik fabric of a priest’s robe from Surabaya, Indonesia, illustrate the extent of Armenian trade networks dating back to the 16th century. century. “We often think of the modern Republic of Armenia, which is slightly smaller than the size of Maryland, but which does not reflect the pre-modern reality of Armenia and the Armenians, who had a truly global reach in their relations. trade, from Indonesia to Western Europe, says Maranci.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, whose origins date back to the first century AD, was central to the culture of the communities represented in this exhibit. “Armenian liturgical textiles are not just pieces of fabric,” says Maranci. Miters, robes, and altar curtains were “intended to sit on the head of a priest, or to hang around the shoulders of a bishop, or to separate the spaces of a church.”

They weren’t made to sit under the glass of a display case, as Katarinē’s embroidered work is now displayed, or rest on a large foam wedge like another large altar curtain does in the show, explains Maranci.

In an Armenian church, they were believed to be seen on often moving clothing – the swirl of symbolic patterns on a priest’s robe as he raised his arms to lift the host – or on a curtain drawn over an altar. to conceal the mystery of a sacrament while revealing images from the story of Christ. They actively participated in the experience of the faithful.

In an Armenian church, liturgical vestments would have been associated with matching cuffs, collars, stoles and bolsters. “Putting these groupings together is almost impossible, as their closest relatives or matching pairs have yet to be located and may never be,” notes former Maranci undergraduate student Erin Piñon, who worked with Maranci on the show and is currently writing his thesis on Armenian Ottoman. art at Princeton.

The class leading the exhibition

A team of undergraduate and graduate students from Tufts developed Connection wires / Surviving objects at the Maranci Spring Seminar 2020 Threads of Survival: Armenian Liturgical Textiles in Local Collections. Piñon co-taught the course.

“Armenian liturgical textiles are not just pieces of fabric,” says Christina Maranci.  Miters, robes, and altar curtains were Each student was associated with a textile from the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts, or the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Taking into account COVID-19 precautions, the seminar took place online; however, the Armenian Museum allowed students to visit and examine their artifacts up close and in person.

“With the social distancing happening in the spring, it meant a lot to have a ‘date’ with their items, to really get to know them and to have ongoing relationships,” says Maranci. After doing the research, writing a long article, and helping to conceptualize the gallery space with research curator Chiara Pidatella, they wrote the labels for each room and designed the exhibition’s welcome banner.

“We tried to capture something of the liturgical service in the exhibition,” Maranci explains. They achieved this by placing the lighted objects in an otherwise dark space and dark blue walls to convey a spirit of contemplation. Additionally, the exhibition labels provide insight into the active role liturgical art plays in religious services as opposed to the typical works of art on display.

In collaboration with scholars from Tufts, the space was designed for visitors from the Armenian community. “It has already been very powerful for many of those who just suffered a war with Azerbaijan last year,” Maranci said. “Since last September, there has been new concern for the Armenian sites now under Azerbaijani control. There is a lot of relived trauma – a feeling that things are repeating themselves since the genocide of 1915-1922. I hope this show has the power to create a place where people can feel this culture is cherished and learned. “

The Tufts Art Gallery is located at 40 Talbot Avenue on the University’s Medford / Somerville campus. The opening hours of the gallery are Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information visit

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer based in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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