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.