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Lost Treasures Found

The pioneering work of art historian Lucy Der Manuelian brings to light the ancient legacy of Armenia
By Laura Ferguson

Church of the Holy Sign

The year is 915, and King Gagik I, the first ruler of the Armenian Kingdom of Vaspurakan, is building a church on the island of Aght'amar, in present-day Turkey. The Church of the Holy Cross will be both an offering to Christ and a powerful display of the king's own political prestige and devoted faith.

But as art historian Lucy Der Manuelian clicks through one slide after another during a recent evening seminar, clearly the medieval Church of the Holy Cross is more than a building: it is a remarkable document in stone.

Richly ornamented, the building's exterior is almost covered with relief sculpture from the Old and New Testaments: Adam and Eve, Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, the Nativity, and important Armenian saints. Inside, the church is embellished with wall paintings that illustrate more than 34 biblical events, and in the dome, a series of paintings depicting unusual scenes from Genesis. Der Manuelian tells her students they are looking at the oldest surviving Christian church with such a wealth of decoration.

"There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world," says Der Manuelian, the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architectural History. "The West had no tradition of carving stone images on the walls of churches until the eleventh century, but Armenia did, and as early as the fifth century. Is there some kind of connection? We might also ask the arguably more important question: what is the relationship is between the building techniques developed by the Armenians for their churches and, centuries later, those used to build the towering Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals in the West? It's a giant puzzle."

Puzzles are not new to the field of art history. Art historians have always explored the possible transmission of ideas between cultures. But Der Manuelian's inquiry has been tougher than most. Armed with only a visa, a camera and a willingness to work harder and longer than anyone else, the diminutive professor has led a relentless crusade over nearly three decades to awaken and deepen interest in Armenia, a tiny country sealed off from the West in 1920 by the Iron Curtain, and an independent republic since 1991.

Along the way, she has earned a number of "firsts:" first American to research, photograph, and write about hundreds of medieval churches and architectural sculpture in Armenia; first art historian in this country to write a doctoral dissertation in the field of Armenian art and architecture; first to hold the first endowed professorial chair in this field.

By necessity, her journey has been an adventure. Armenia has been politically difficult to access, and its monuments often only reachable by twisting goat paths. Der Manuelian has taken on both challenges with characteristic derring-do, and her most recent project, a documentary shown on PBS stations around the country, indicates she has no intention of losing steam.

"My mission is to present to as wide as an audience as possible-academia, museums, the general public-the distinctive achievements of Armenian art and architecture," said Der Manuelian. "I'm very happy if my work opens other people's eyes to a different part of the world."

Lucy Der Manuelian was an unlikely pioneer. She grew up in Boston, and after attending Radcliffe College, where she majored in English, she married and, following a year in Europe, settled down in the Boston suburb of Belmont.

Der Manuelian's ethnic identity, as for so many, was defined by the Armenian genocide, in which more than a million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks, beginning in 1915. Her father's parents and sisters were all brutally murdered.

Yet her understanding of Armenia was also nurtured by childhood stories of its ancient past. Her godfather, Arshag Fetvadjian, was an authority on Armenian architecture who, around the turn of the century, documented the ruins of Ani, a medieval capital situated on the Silk Road. He produced thousands of paintings and sketches exhibited at the Louvre and at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. When Fetvadjian eventually made his way to the United States with little but his artwork, Der Manuelian's father invited him to stay in their apartment in Arlington.

For Der Manuelian, her godfather's watercolors were evocative reminders of an Armenia few people knew about or appreciated. As the first country to declare Christianity the official state religion, in the fourth century, Armenia played a pivotal role in the spread of the new religion. Their fifth-century translations of the Bible from Syriac and Greek are invaluable to biblical scholars, as are their similarly early translations of Aristotle, Plato and other classical authors (many early Christian texts, whose originals are lost, now survive only in the Armenian translation). By papal decree in 1312, the teaching of Armenian was obligatory at the universities of Paris, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca.

The paintings also reflect an Armenia that was once a great empire. Bounded on the west by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by the Caspian Sea, ancient Armenia bridged continents, a sprawling and influential culture at the crossroads of military highways and trade routes between East and West.

Its strategic location left it vulnerable to repeated attack; invading Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Russians changed its borders significantly. But after each period of war, Armenian nobles would return to their sacred duties: to rebuild destroyed churches and construct new ones, and to order scribes in their monasteries to copy and illustrate Bibles and Gospel manuscripts. From about the fourth century to the fourteenth, thousands of churches were constructed.

The hallmark of these Armenian churches is a central plan structure with a steep pyramidal roof protecting the dome, which rests on a circular drum. Architects showed their mastery of building techniques by designing an amazing variety of church types--rectangular, cruciform, round, hexagonal, even octagonal. Their churches, dense masonry cubes, prisms and polygons, are noted for their compact and powerful style seemingly carved from one massive block.

"It is often said that the soul of a people is revealed more fully in its architecture than in any other way," said Der Manuelian. "If so, there can be no more eloquent spokesman for the Armenians than the handsome medieval churches that have stood for centuries perched at the crests of mountains, nestled amid thick forests, cradled in river valleys or silhouetted against massive cliffs. They tell a haunting tale of a people with a religion and an identity to preserve-at all costs."

Regrettably, Der Manuelian's godfather died without seeing his dream of having his work published. But years later, before Der Manuelian ever thought of entering graduate school, she became interested in art history, and especially medieval European art and architecture. Her subsequent research into Armenia's architectural treasures is, unwittingly, a fulfillment of her godfather's wish.

"It is interesting that my own independent interest coincided with this emotional bond I had as a child with my godfather," said Der Manuelian. "When I was little, I knew only that he had done something very important, but I didn't know the details. It was quite unexpected that my intellectual interest coincided with this emotional memory. If I had deliberately started out to fulfill my godfather's mission, I couldn't have done it in a better way."

Indeed, her journey got started inauspiciously. In the early 1970s when she was auditing art history courses at Harvard College, she kept running across footnotes pointing out that early medieval Armenian construction techniques were the same ones used to build the towering Gothic cathedrals. To some historians, the notion did not seem that implausible: Armenia had built stone churches as early as the fourth century, and documentation showed that there were Armenians living in Western Europe at all the right times and places.

"I thought: 'This is amazing! I've never read anything about this in any of the textbooks on the history of art,'" said Der Manuelian. "I began to realize that some more research might answer some of the most haunting questions of art history. For example, where did the medieval architects of Western Europe learn those building techniques? Some scholars were convinced there was a connection."

For Der Manuelian, the question was a clarion call to undertake what would become a lifetime devotion to awakening an interest in ancient Armenia. She dug deeper during a fellowship at Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute, and then went on to Boston University as a PhD candidate in art history, focusing specifically on medieval art and planning to write her dissertation on Armenian art.

By chance, she learned that universities will not permit a graduate student to write a dissertation in a field for which there is no professor on the faculty. Not only was there no art historian of Armenian art at Boston University, but there was no professor in the whole country who specialized in the field. Fortunately, Professor Oleg Grabar at Harvard agreed to serve as her advisor.

Her next challenge was to obtain permission to do fieldwork in Armenia. In 1976, Armenia was still under Soviet rule, and study and travel within its borders were closely monitored. Undaunted, Der Manuelian won an exchange fellowship from the International Research and Exchanges Board which, among other requirements, involved her in tracking down a Russian typewriter and writing out the proposal that would enable her to live in Armenia for seven months at Yerevan Polytechnic Institute. After six weeks of orientation in Moscow, she arrived in Armenia in the fall of 1977, eager to document as many as 50 to 100 churches and other monuments, most of which had never been photographed by a Western scholar.

Since snow would likely fall within six weeks, Der Manuelian hurried to visit as many churches as she could, but finding transportation--Jeeps or cars--was a great problem, as there were no car-rental agencies! With some ingenuity, she arranged to hitch rides from government agencies or individuals. The churches, perched on mountaintops, required trekking up winding goat paths and hanging on for dear life as her Jeep took the hairpin turns of rugged trails.

Once, frustrated by not being able to get transport to two churches in the extreme north and well beyond her permitted travel area, she found her own way around the problem. After a jouncy 10-hour bus ride with a friend, she arrived at the remote village and spent two full days photographing the thirteenth-century churches. But later, as she was packing to leave her host household, she was startled by a knock on the door. The visitors were Soviet KGB officers, who claimed to be on a routine check to see everyone's papers. Der Manuelian knew it was illegal for her to stay in the apartment of a Soviet citizen and she was afraid that the officers would confiscate her film. So she thought of a game plan. She handed over her passport and when they insisted on the film she had shot, she gave them two rolls she knew were blank, damaged by a faulty camera, and kept 20 good rolls secret. At first, the KGB seemed satisfied, but then they returned to demand the film in her cameras.

Der Manuelian pleaded to keep them, trying one argument after another. She needed the film to present the Armenian culture to the outside world; the film was critical for her students; she could not replace it. Finally, Der Manuelian flatly refused. "I told them, 'You already have two rolls. I am not going to give you this. You can sit here all night and all day and all night and all day, but I am not giving you that film.' "

"I remember sitting down, crossing my arms, realizing that I was shaking and wondering if I had gone too far," recalled Der Manuelian. "There was dead silence in the room for several long minutes. I look back and wonder what made me do that? It was so dangerous! But I was lucky. They said, 'You can keep the film; but don't blame us, we're just trying to do our job.' "

Back in Yerevan, Moscow had informed the KGB that the region was strictly off-limits to foreigners, and the KGB deliberated whether to jail her or throw her out of the country. After many tense weeks, the matter was apparently dropped. "I lived under a black cloud until then," said Der Manuelian, but she managed to get some 35 rolls of color film back to America. "I used to hang around the tourist hotels and approach anyone who spoke English with an American accent and say: 'I'm not a spy! I'm a graduate student in art history, and I wonder if you would carry two or three rolls of film out of the country for me and drop them in a mailbox; they are in prepaid mailers.' And invariably they were trusting."

In 1980, Der Manuelian was appointed to the Armenian Architectural Archives Project and became involved writing three volumes on medieval Armenian architecture for their microfiche publications and co-authoring a fourth, as well as some 30 related articles for the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. But she wondered whether she would ever get to teach at the college level.

Knowing Armenian art was considered a narrow field, and difficult to fund, Professor Grabar and Der Manuelian came up with the idea of a post in Armenian art history, jointly funded by outside contributors and that could rotate among Boston institutions. Donning the hat of fund-raiser, Der Manuelian went to work raising money through lecture contacts.

Her efforts were rewarded in 1984 when the funds for the first year were gathered thanks to the vision of benefactors Mrs. Louise Manoogian Simone and Mego Malkhassian. Tufts established the pioneering Lectureship in Armenian Art and Architecture in conjunction with Harvard, McGill, Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Der Manuelian was appointed to the Lectureship, a job that included raising funds to continue the program.

Five years later, at the urging of the late art history professor Margaret Floyd, Der Manuelian set about establishing a permanent chair. Her goal: one million dollars. As in the past, her innumerable contacts paid off. Ara Oztemel and Mrs. Arthur H. Dadian had followed Der Manuelian's whirlwind activities, and, impressed by her achievements, joined in funding the first endowed professorship in Armenian art and architecture ever established at a university, which bears their names.

"I'm so grateful that Tufts, being a pioneering institution, said 'yes' to the novel idea of the Lectureship in the first place, which led to the establishment of the chair," said Der Manuelian.

Today, Der Manuelian combines teaching, research, writing and constant fieldwork in Armenia with a busy public-speaking schedule. She has presented more than a thousand public lectures at universities, museums and institutions such as the World Affairs Council in Boston, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Embassy in Moscow. All told she has given more than a thousand public lectures in eleven countries. Her lively and informative slide lectures have enthralled all kinds of audiences. "People are so impressed by the story of this country and its art," said Der Manuelian. "They always want to know more."

A documentary film is her most recent project. Lost Treasures of Christianity: The Ancient Monuments of Armenia was filmed during three expeditions in Armenia. The film grew out of Der Manuelian's work on catalog chapters and slide lectures for Weavers, Merchants and Kings: The Inscribed Rugs of Armenia, an exhibit organized by the Kimbell Art Museum. "I knew that museum-goers would fall in love with the beautiful rugs," said Der Manuelian. "But I also wanted them to learn something about Armenia's medieval castles and churches, the stone-carved images on their walls and their brilliantly illustrated manuscripts. I first made a documentary using my slides and then decided to make a film of broadcast quality."

She raised the money in stages, hired an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and wrote the script in accordance with Public Broadcasting System guidelines. The first public showing of the film was in 1998 at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, followed by five broadcasts on the New Jersey Network's public television stations in five states, and, this year, on 58 PBS stations across the country.

Like her other projects inside Armenia, the documentary was plagued by problems. This time they included securing a helicopter for aerial views. After intense negotiations with Soviet authorities, a military helicopter was flown in from Moscow, but Der Manuelian was told she could not be a passenger because it was too dangerous. "I told them, 'I can't not go up in that helicopter; I don't care how dangerous it is!' " Der Manuelian said with a laugh. "It was one of those moments when you know what you have to do and you do it. And seeing those churches and that haunting terrain from high above was one of the happiest days of my life."

When the USSR collapsed and Armenia declared its independence, filming resumed, but Armenia was being blockaded. That meant difficulties such as sudden power failures, problems getting fuel, transportation, electricity, communicating with the outside world. There was also the disappearance of $10,000 worth of film and rented film equipment, lost as "freight" in Moscow and only retrieved after some "cloak-and-dagger" work-or "sheer bribery!" recalled Der Manuelian.

Such adventures are an integral part of Der Manuelian's passionate commitment and are, in themselves, lessons she brings to her audiences. From her fieldwork, writing and teaching, she has taken what was once relegated to footnotes into a wider arena of inquiry. Thanks to her triumphs and the generous help that she and others provide to scholars, Armenia is becoming more recognized as an invaluable source for medieval history, art, science, linguistics and theology. "The list of world-class figures from this culture gets longer as more scholars focus their attention on Armenia," noted Der Manuelian. "Just recently, Boethius, one of the two most renowned philosophical thinkers of the Middle Ages, was also discovered to be of Armenian descent."

"This is a very great civilization, and the churches the Armenian nobility built are the most important documents of Armenian achievement and impact, especially with the historical inscriptions carved on their walls," she added. "Their architecture is a record in stone. It is my hope that others will also see in it the heart of a great Christian kingdom."

   

 

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