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Reverent Beauty: The Met’s Armenia Show Is One for the Ages

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Friday, 26 October, 2018, 12:35
Reverent Beauty: The Met’s Armenia Show Is One for the Ages

They were mostly young people who came out in the streets of Armenia this past spring, waving balloons of red, orange and blue. They were fed up with their ineffectual government, and on their smartphones they watched the progress of an opposition leader, the former journalist Nikol Pashinyan, as he walked in protest across central Armenia. When he arrived in Yerevan, the capital of this former Soviet republic, the crowds sang, shouted and swore to go on strike. Less than six weeks later, Mr. Pashinyan was named interim prime minister of Armenia, ushered into office on the shoulders of the extraordinary, nonviolent “velvet revolution.”

Armenia is a country with so much history it can overwhelm you. This spring we learned its future might be as eventful as its past, which makes it a timely moment for “Armenia!,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eye-opening appraisal of the art, manuscripts, textiles and religious artifacts of a nation that is still adding surprising chapters to its dramatic history.

Mr. Pashinyan attended the opening last month. There was no sign, alas, of Kim Kardashian, our most famous Armenian-American, but His Holiness Karekin II, the catholicos (or supreme patriarch) of the Armenian church, was also spotted in the galleries; the country was the first to make Christianity its official religion, and this exhibition, packed with weighty stone crosses and richly illuminated gospels, is a testament to the centrality of the church to Armenian cultural identity. No museum has ever mounted such a large exhibition of Armenian art, and most of the 140 objects here come from museum collections and churches in Armenia and rarely travel.

“Armenia!” has been organized by Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator of Byzantine art, and focuses specifically on the art and history of the country’s medieval period. It is not, despite the exclamation point in its title, an exhibition that favors razzle-dazzle. In fact, “Armenia!” is a rather bookish sort of blockbuster, concentrating heavily on illuminated manuscripts, and presented in low lighting to protect the gospels and romances on view. There is some ecclesiastical flash, in the form of bejeweled crucifixes and gold-plated censers, but this is primarily an exhibition of book illustration, unlike any other medieval manuscript show you’re likely to see.