Lost Treasures Found
Lost Treasures Found
The pioneering work of art historian Lucy Der Manuelian brings
to light the ancient legacy of Armenia
By Laura Ferguson
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
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
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
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
"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
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."