Art Exhibition of Armenian Christian Art at the British Library

This exhibition has Armenian Christian artifacts of great antiquity. There are stone, wooden, metal and jewelled crosses, ceramics, vestments, textiles, recorded music, books, bronzes – all testifying to the importance of long centuries of Christianity in Armenia.

Armenia was the first country to become a Christian State, when King Trdat III was converted, and has always been the centre of a turbulent and politically volatile part of the world. Christians there have endured much persecution, invasion and warfare, but the elegance and sophistication of the objects on display give an idea of the richness and power of the Christian faith which has flourished there for seventeen hundred years.

There are a great many elaborately illuminated manuscripts – the earliest surviving exhibit goes back to the seventh century. The books are magnificent, illuminated in a range of styles from the almost primitive to elaborate and complex designs that are the equal of the finest European work. They are bound in exquisite jewelled or carved ivory boards. These books were regarded as great treasures, and revered like icons were in Russia. The were even carried onto the battlefield to give protection and encouragement to the armies. The Armenian script is based on the Greek alphabet. It was created in the fifth century and has changed so little that these ancient manuscripts are comparatively easy to read by present day scholars. The tradition of illustrated books was so strong that they were still being produced by hand long after the invention of printing rendered it somewhat of an anachronism.

The carved stone crosses, the elaborately carved wooden doors and lecterns, and some of the reliquaries, have designs that are intricately interlaced, with formalized hieratic figures, giving an impression of reverence and solemnity. The fact that the fragile and elaborate wooden doors have survived from the thirteenth century is a source of amazement – their delicate carving still intact.

The structure of the Armenian Eucharist is firstly the preparation, and the altar curtain is closed, then the assembly of the faithful, when the curtain is opened, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist and then the dismissal. There are some splendid altar curtains on display, made in Madras in the eighteenth century. They are decorated in a mixture of woodblock, batik and hand painting and drawing with lively images (on one) of the very extensive and varied trials of St Gregory and (on the other) the Passion and Crucifixion. The colours and compositions are brilliant and strongly reminiscent of contemporary Indian fabric design.

The ceramic bowls and vases are beautifully decorated with formal designs of flowers and fruit, angels and birds. Modern Turkish ceramics, so familiar to us now, clearly have their roots in this common artistic heritage. There were some intriguing decorated ceramic globes, designed to be inserted into the chains for the oil lamps round the altar. They were to prevent the mice from climbing down the chains and drinking the oil!

There is at once a strangeness and a familiarity about the objects on display – a familiarity because they relate so closely to things that we know and love, and strange because they have been made so long ago by a people whose culture has looked both East and West for many centuries. Armenians have, throughout their history, had to leave their homelands, either for economic reasons or because of wars and persecutions, and there are, therefore, Armenian communities all over the world. In Jerusalem, of course, there is an ancient Armenian quarter, and they are one of the three guardians of the Holy Sepulchre. Their faith has always been a powerful unifying force for this courageous, tragic and scattered people

If I had a complaint to make abut the exhibition it would be to say the official pamphlet which accompanies it is over-simple, and the splendid background photographs in the showcases do not carry any identification. There is a truly splendid, but very expensive, book available. However, there is much to be marvelled at and the objects are beautifully and imaginatively displayed. Some of them have been part of Christian worship for more than the thousand years – an inheritance in which we all have a share.

Anne Gardom