Over the past two decades, Helen Evans, as curator of Byzantine art, has organized a series of stunning exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have revealed rich worlds unlike our own, yet bound to us by a family resemblance, as a result of a common origin in the Mediterranean societies of Late Antiquity. In these exhibitions Evans has presented the great alternative to the Catholic West: the Christian Orthodox world of Byzantium, the Balkans, and Russia. She has also reinterpreted the emergence of Islam, for the first time in a major exhibition, not as a brutal break in the flow of Middle Eastern history but as a moment of transition.1 In her latest exhibition, “Armenia!,” she has outdone herself. Here is the story of an Eastern Christian society that was creative, enduring, and, at many times, gloriously idiosyncratic.
The exhibition is based on a hitherto undreamed-of gathering of Armenian objects of high quality. The exquisitely illuminated pages of complete books—each volume heavy with a distinctive past—line well-lit walls. But less expected are the enormous decorative crosses carved in stone, known in Armenian as khachkars, that once sprouted like so many ranks of giants in the cemeteries and shrines of the Armenian uplands. Here the cross has become, in an Eastern Christian tradition whose roots lay deep in the imaginative world of the ancient Near East, a tree of life. The khachkar would have shimmered as light and shadow played on its lace-like surface, making the deep-carved stone appear as opulent as the woodwork and stucco of great palaces. Each one spoke of a person or a group whose memory, it was hoped, would last as long as the stone stood in its native earth.
The vibrant khachkars hit the eye in the exhibition’s rooms as the manuscripts do not. But they were both produced for the same reason. Behind each lies a heroic determination not to forget. Each manuscript volume carries a colophon—a final comment added by the scribe—that begs the reader to remember him (or her, for we know of at least one woman scribe) as well as the patron and family who had commissioned the book—usually a gospel or a hymnal. Like the khachkars, the manuscripts come from a society in which memory was not simply (as it often is with us) an attic of the mind—a neutral storage space of past events. Memory was loyalty, and forgetfulness was treason.
As we walk through the exhibition, somewhat bemused by the sheer beauty of bright color set on radiant gold leaf, we should remember the world revealed to us…
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