London: Sacred Stories: Relishes the chance to see Armenian art inLo

Sacred stories
by Michael Binyon

The Times (London)
August 31, 2004, Tuesday


RARE and little-known examples of Armenian sacred art are to be
displayed in London next month in one of the biggest and most varied
exhibitions of the genre seen in Europe for years.

Situated at the crossroads between Asian, European and Byzantine
traditions, Armenian art has often been overlooked by collectors. But
Sam Fogg, a dealer in Asian manuscripts and medieval art, has been
collecting Armenian artefacts for 15 years, including manuscripts,
gospel books, icons and a rare carved wooden panel.

The display at his London gallery, running from September 23 until
October 15, will, he hopes, both rehabilitate a tradition largely
overlooked and undervalued and focus new attention on this unusual
synthesis from the best elements of Persian, Turkish, Greek and West
European art.

One of the world’s oldest Christian countries, Armenia has an Apostolic
Church that claims its foundation by the apostles Bartholomew and
Thaddeus. Christianity became the state religion in 300 AD, when St
Gregory the Illuminator converted the Arsacid King Tiridates III,
and Armenians have clung to their beliefs throughout a history of
oppression, dispersal and incorporation into the empires of their

Yet throughout the centuries of isolation among Muslim cultures, they
have produced distinctive works of art that celebrate the medieval
periods in Greater Armenia and the Kingdom of Cilicia -in modern Turkey
-while preserving their identity in subsequent times of hardship.

Nowadays, for the first time in centuries, Armenia is an independent
state, with the ancient spiritual centre of Etchmiadzin once again
flourishing as a cultural hub.

The exhibition, which begins, appropriately, on Armenian independence
day, September 23, is admittedly small in range and scale. There are
22 pieces, with no sculpture, no secular painting and only one rare
and beautiful 17th-century icon from the treasury of Etchmiadzin.
Armenian genius is shown mostly in the illustration of sacred books.

The most exquisite are the gospel illuminations. Unlike the work
of medieval European monks, the Armenians who painted the biblical
scenes and elaborate title-page decorations were celebrated in their
day and much in demand.

One of the finest is a gospel book by the artist Ghazar. Written in the
15th century, it includes four cut-down decorated pages on parchment
from two separate Cicilian Gospel books of the 12th century. Both are
of luxurious quality; the first (Matthew and Mark) is almost identical
to a gospel dated 1181 in the British Library, and the second (Luke
and John) has inscriptions on the reverse which record that the
book was commissioned by “the Crown Prince Kostandin, the King’s
Chamberlain”. According to Fogg’s scholarly and well-illustrated
catalogue, this must refer to the Cicilian Lord of Kopitar who was
present at the coronation of King Leo the Magnificent in 1198 at the
birth of the Kingdom of Cicilia.

Armenian art falls between several stools; being neither wholly Asian
nor European nor Byzantine, it is ignored by specialists in these
fields. Sadly, it has been largely ignored by Armenians themselves,
who have paid little attention to their heritage. There was a flurry
of interest in the 1920s, but that has subsided and, as a result,
what little comes on the market does not command vast prices.

Only three centres outside Armenia have good collections: the libraries
in Venice and Vienna and the monastery of St James in Jerusalem. Sam
Fogg hopes, however, that his careful assembly over the years of a
collection ranging from the 10th to 18th centuries, which shows how the
art evolved and adapted in such places as Constantinople or elsewhere
in the diaspora, will prompt interest by a museum in acquiring the
whole collection, more valuable as a whole than as separate pieces.

For the next month, however, it is free for anyone to admire.

Art of the Armenians, Sam Fogg gallery, W1, 020-7534 2122, Sept 23
to Oct 15