Discovering the World of Armenia! An Intern's Perspective

Earnestine Qiu
December 27, 2018
Intern Ernestine Qiu in the gallery

Graduate intern Earnestine Qiu at the opening of the exhibition Armenia!, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 13

In the summer of 2017, I was thrilled to join the curatorial team working on the exhibition Armenia! at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Earlier, I had completed a course at Rutgers University on medieval art in the South Caucasus and, more recently, a graduate seminar on cultural and artistic exchange at Tufts. In these seminars, we examined the ways in which objects and motifs tell stories that shift as they cross cultural and geographical boundaries. These were questions I continued to explore while working on the exhibition.

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 13, 2019, the exhibition leads visitors through the manuscripts, reliquaries, and even the church doors of Greater Armenia, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, and many other sites on which Armenians have left a mark. A walk through the galleries takes the visitor from object to object, from site to site, along the Armenians' expansive trade routes. In reading primary Armenian sources and writing labels for the galleries, I developed a more nuanced perspective on the multivalent nature of the exhibition objects. These objects, which originate from the Caucasus and the Mediterranean and beyond, simultaneously exhibit stylistic elements typically associated not only with Armenian art but also with Western European and East Asian art. The questions of origin and exchange that emerge from the convergence of these features make them defy easy categorization.

Monastery on green land overlooking the sea

Churches of the Holy Apostles and the Mother of God, Monastery of Sevan, Lake Sevan. Photo by Hrair Hawk Khatcherian and Lilit Khachatryan. From the exhibition catalogue, Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, 183.

I knew that the exhibition would include the re-creation of a church on Lake Sevan in Armenia, complete with projected images of Sevan and sacred objects from the church that would simulate for the twenty-first-century visitor the experience of being in a ninth-century Armenian monastic complex. In planning this section of the exhibition, my task was to research the experience of a medieval visitor to Lake Sevan. I searched through primary sources in an attempt to understand what a medieval Armenian might have experienced in church.

Colophons, or comments made in the margins of manuscripts, provided me with valuable information about the political, religious, and physical conditions in which manuscript copyists and illuminators worked and lived. These monastic copyists and artists spoke of participating in vibrant church and monastic communities, as well as traveling between communities and toiling through foreign invasions, persecutions, and the spread of deadly diseases. Despite undergoing many trials and tribulations, the Armenians continued to produce an abundance of remarkable manuscripts, khachkars, reliquaries, and much more. A visitor to Armenia! sees this narrative unfold through the placement and description of objects that reveal the tumultuous times these objects withstood, as well as the movement of objects and ideas through time and across geographic borders.

Cave churches cut into rock in Cappadocia

Byzantine cave churches at Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo by the author

The following summer, I had the good fortune to travel to Cappadocia in central Turkey, with a small team of four, to do fieldwork for three weeks for Professor Lynn Jones of Florida State University. I helped document and fact-check the relatively sparse information we have about the Byzantine cave churches of Cappadocia. Who were these churches intended for? What time of day did the faithful find themselves in these spaces? How did the sounds of song and hymn resonate in the small chambers of these caves? Here I was, armed with no primary sources and only a few outdated maps. As my group trekked through the overgrown valleys and up onto the high plateaus of Cappadocia, we wondered aloud whether the tenth-century inhabitants would have communicated much across the valley. I envied the medieval Cappadocians for the natural wonders they lived among, and tried to imagine, as I had before when I was reading my books and sitting in a classroom in Massachusetts, what life was like for these people.

Interior of a simple medieval church

Interior of church in Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey. Photo by the author

In Cappadocia, I fancied myself retracing the steps of those who lived in the caves centuries ago. Returning to The Met in the summer of 2018 after my trip to Cappadocia, I found myself asking in a very new way the questions that drive my interest in medieval art history. How can one understand cultures and people from whom one is temporally and geographically so far removed? When confronted with a selection of a culture's art objects, how does one begin to understand what these objects meant to the people who owned and beheld them, both in the past and today? What is my responsibility in approaching these objects and histories?

Three artworks from the exhibition

From left to right: Bible, 1586. Made in Keghi. Armenian. Tempera and ink on paper; 407 folios, 7 3/4 x 5 3/4in. (19.7 x 14.4 cm). Private collection. Hand reliquary of Saint Abulmuse, 18th century. Armenian. Silver gilded, silver, and colored stones, 1 3/8 x 9 7/8 x 8 5/8 in. (3.5 x 25.1 x 21.9 cm). Alex and Marie Manoogian Museum, Southfield, Michigan. Gospel with silver cover, 13th and 17th century. Made in present-day Turkey, Kayseri. Cover: silver, gilt, jewels, enamel; Binding: H. 10 1/4 in. W. 7 3/8 in. (26 x 18.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, 1916 (16.99)

As I helped to write the gallery and object labels, I became increasingly aware of the diversity and richness of what we call "Armenian art." For example, in the sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript of Hakob of Julfa (left), one sees an unusual figural depiction of God as Creator in a distinctly Armenian style. Another work, an ornately decorated hand reliquary (center), was created to hold the relic of a saint whose life was first documented in Syriac; the text that recounted the life of Saint Abulmuse was then translated into Armenian when his cult spread to Armenia in the ninth century. In a later example, the scenes found on a seventeenth-century silver repoussé plaque from Kayseri, which is attached to a thirteenth-century Armenian Cilician manuscript (right), clearly took their inspiration from the woodcut of a Dutch artist, Christoffel van Sichem.

The first object can be called Armenian, but what about the other two? Are they also Armenian? Did the figure of the Eastern saint Abulmuse, and the Western European iconography found in the repoussé plaque, maintain stable meanings as they moved across geographical, religious, and cultural boundaries? It is difficult for the twenty-first century viewer living in a period of globalism to fully comprehend the cross-pollination present in the Middle Ages.

Men with yellow machinery hoisting a fifth-century stone stele in the galleries

Museum staff installing an Armenian four-sided stele from the 4th–5th century. Armenian. Photo by Constance Alchermes

In my year as an intern at the Museum, I watched teams of people—from curators to the registrar, from the Digital Department to the Editorial Department—participate in the procurement, display, and presentation of Armenian objects from collections in the Republic of Armenia, the United States, and Lebanon, to name a few. All these objects have been brought together to allow us to experience the global network of medieval Armenians. Thousands of miles away from Armenia, these objects have become our link and anchor as we retrace the travels of Armenians within and beyond Greater Armenia. In seeing and learning about these objects, we too have the chance to participate in the long lives of these objects as well as the lives of the individuals who, centuries ago, created, viewed, and handled them.

Related Content

Armenia! is on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 13, 2019.

Visit the places mentioned in this blog post on The Met's Interactive Map of Armenians in the Medieval World.

View the galleries in the exhibition's digital walkthrough.

Listen to the Audio Guide for the exhibition.

The exhibition catalogue is available at The Met Store.

Earnestine Qiu

Earnestine Qiu is a graduate student in the Department of Art and Art History at Tufts University and a former graduate intern in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at The Met.