LETTER: On the Getty Lawsuit

The Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America filed last week a suit against the J. Paul Getty Museum, claiming the institution illegally bought seven pages from a sacred Bible.

As an individual of Armenian descent and an art professional, I feel accountability for input in the case of the Western Prelacy’s claim against the J. Paul Getty Museum.

According to Asbarez newspaper, the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claims the seven illuminated manuscript pages, which date back to 1256, were ripped from the Armenian Orthodox Church’s Zeyt’un Gospels during the Armenian Genocide and are in illegal possession of the museum’s collection.
The words “ripped” and “genocide” induce a sensation of rage and terror in the minds of many readers, and prejudice the readers by not allowing them to see the whole picture.  Let us assume that those words were planted there intentionally for their impact and let us also examine the side that has been overlooked.

A spokesman for the prelacy, Levon Kirakosian, says “We expect the Getty to do the right thing.” What exactly is the right thing? Is it that when the pages are returned to the church the Armenian nation will gain more authority, “because,” in Kirakosian words, “we are trying to hold on to our identity and survival”? Is the $105 million dollar ransom obligatory for…what is it exactly?

Shouldn’t we instead ask the question to ourselves, “What damages, if any, have been done to the art work or to the Armenian nation due to the fact that those invaluable works of art are treasured in a prominent museum like the J.P. Getty?

Because of my passion for art and my occupation, I attend many museums around the world and have worked at museums and art galleries all my life. I have never witnessed any other organizations or museums in the world that have presented the works of Armenian art in such a highly professional manner.
I feel honored that the Getty has legal ownership of these pages, known as Canon Tables, which have been widely published, studied, and exhibited. The museum acquired the pages from a private U.S. collection in 1994. Since then, the pages have been described, reproduced and written about in articles, as well as displayed in a 1994 Armenian art and culture exhibition in New York.  The J.P. Getty museum’s collection is available on line worldwide and this is how the manuscripts are described:

The Zeyt’un Gospels, made in the scriptorium at Hromklay for Katholikos Constantine I in 1256, are the earliest signed work of T’oros Roslin, the most accomplished illuminator and scribe in Armenia in the 1200s. These canon tables were separated from the manuscript at some point in the past and eventually acquired by the Getty Museum, while the rest of the manuscript is in a public collection in Armenia.

Originally designed by Eusebius of Caesarea in the 300s, the Canon Tables provide a concordance of related passages that describe the same events in more than one of the four Gospels. By the early Middle Ages, the columns of numbers were usually assembled within painted architectural structures. Though Roslin used this traditional format in all of his pages, he endlessly varied the ornamental designs and naturalistic elements, imbuing each page with individuality and vitality.

Armenia established its own independent church in the 300s, distinct from both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In medieval Armenia, religious books such as this one were believed to serve as heavenly intercessors for those involved with the books’ creation, patronage, or restoration; Gospel books are among the most sumptuous of Armenian manuscripts.

In addition to the information above you can also browse “Armenian” and get 21 results that include researches, publications, concerts, exhibits, family festivals, and more all related to “Armenian,” which is what I think describes Kirakosyan’s statement “identity and survival.”
I find this battle over cultural patrimony, is so senseless, especially considering that the art has never been misinterpreted. In fact, Armenian art, history, and culture had been “righteously” credited because of these sacred pages.

The Getty Museum is free and attracts millions of visitors every year from around the world, making the Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts available to, and putting them in the context of, a wide swath of human civilization.

It’s sad to acknowledge that even cultural organizations in Armenian lands, that are still healing from political and economic wounds, have not been able to carry out what this museum has for Armenian culture.  The issue comes down to the fact that culture, while it can have deeply rooted, special meanings to specific people, doesn’t belong to anyone in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t stand still. The past is not something we can just return to whenever we like — it’s not something fixed and always available. It’s something forever beyond our grasp, which we must reinvent to make present.

Today’s Armenia is unlike what it was in the 13th century when those manuscripts were created. Over the centuries and through succeeding empires and regimes, those pages have changed many hands and we have to be grateful that they survived to our days.

Finding them in the 21st century in the country that has attracted thousands of Armenians throughout modern history is something that adds on its own new layer of history.

One of the paradoxes of this debate is that it is precisely the heaping of scorn on the museum’s  open, free, and faithful treatment of these documents that helps galvanize the Armenian sense of national identity and pride in the manuscript’s pages.

But the question, looting and tourist dollars aside, is why should any objects necessarily reside in the modern nation-state controlling land where, at one time, perhaps thousands of years earlier, they came from? The question goes to the heart of how culture operates in a global age. Under the pretense of historical reparations, pride, and justice, it translates to a symbolic nationalistic act.

Over the centuries, works of art have been split up and dispersed among private collectors and museums here and there. To us pages from the Bible   may be a singular cause, but they’re like plenty of other works that have been broken up and disseminated. The effect of this vandalism on the education and enlightenment of people in all the various places where the dismembered works have landed has been in many ways democratizing.

That’s not an excuse for looting. It’s simply to recognize that art, differently presented, or abridged, can speak in myriad contexts. It is resilient and spreads knowledge and sympathy across borders. Ripped from its origins, it loses one set of meanings to gain others. For better and worse, history moves on.

People make connections across cultures through objects like Manuscript pages. These objects can become compulsory for ideologues, tools for social division and apparatus of the economy, or guides through history and oracles to a more perfect union of nations. Art is something made in a particular place by particular people, and may serve a particular function at one time but also be able to obtain a different meaning at other times. It summons distinct feelings to those for whom it’s local, but ultimately belongs to everyone and to no one.

We’re all custodians of global culture for posterity.

Elmira Adamian
Los Angeles


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  1. eddy said:

    Thank you Elmira!

    Armenian communities around the globe need more such courageous people like Elmira like me and you!

  2. Arshak Khachmanyan said:

    For the past hundreds of years Armenians all over the world have been “trying to hold on to thier identity and survival.” Now those pages of valueble manuscript have been located by the Getty Museum, are properly cared for and available to the whole world to view and learn from. I think the Getty museum has played a huge role in helping all armeinans hold on to thier identity and survival.

    • Virginia said:

      I agree Arshak,

      I am sorry to say but we Armenians do not take enough care of our intellectual resources. There are millions of ancient manuscripts that we have in different libraries all around the world. What do we do with them? Unfortunately not much. Who works on them? Who researches those materials or who translates them in modern Armenian so that at least we, Armenians who are so proud of those invisible books can read and enjoy or understand what are they about, who are we and what our ancestors have been trying to preserve so hardly.
      We don’t pay enough attention to the students who try to study Armenian studies, there is not enough funding for it. Armenian studies have become a study of the Genocide only, and we don’t even realize that there is a White Genocide that’s happening to us today. There is so much more that need to be said but I will stop here.

  3. Vazken said:

    Elmira Adamian
    What kind of logic is that? There is no excuses! the Ownership belong to Catholicosat of Cilicia, they kept all the relevan documents (original book) more than thousand years, against all odds: but there is no guaranty The J.P. Getty museum’s will last that long… .
    After the ownership is returned to the rightfull Owner, they (J.P. Getty museum’s) may ask to borrow for the museum continue such arrangement with the Catholicossat.

  4. Garen said:

    Why are we always after small things but tend to ignore the abvious. Getty payed for the pages they did not still it…If Armenians like myself are so noble then instead of filing a lawsuit we should buy thouse pages back.

  5. Ruby said:

    To Garen

    Did Getty bought it from the Armenian Church or the Government or in fact they knew it was a stolen item but they still paid for it.
    And it goes to Elmira: What a pittyful Armenian you are who is proud that the historical treasure of her ancesstors especilly religous treasure is kept by a none Armenian organization/museum, it is really SAD!

  6. Vazken said:

    To remove 7 pages from “The Zeytun Gospel” is an act of ripping; if J.P. Getty museum hasn’t done it, then they must know the supplier/dealer or Killer.

    We are dealing with a crime of barbarism: which is skills of the Turks- refering to Armenian “KHATCHKAR” Crosses in Nakhitcevan and Western Armenia (the present Eastern Anatholia)- and their attempt to rewrite their history to bullshit the Europeans.

    Obviously, J.P. Getty museum’s curator didn’t ask or mind how it came this “objet d’art” in a U.S. collection in 1994?.

    Has this person purchased from enother private collector, or maybe it was a gift from a Turkish well connected person to a US well connected person as inducement to lobby against recognition of Armenian Genocide? it could be irony of a fate? who knows?

    After all, it has been ripped and dissapeared during the Armenian Genocide, and reappeared in the J Paul Getty museum. I am sure will found out.