Early Armenian Textiles “Or et Trésors d’Arménie” (Gold and Treasures from Armenia)
Thirty years later, encouraged by Dickran Kouymjian, Marielle Martiniani-Reber from the Musée Historique in Geneva and Genevieve Cornu grasped the importance of the subject and drew up a plan for an exhibition. Events led to it being the Musée Historique in Lyon which turned the plan into reality and presented this exhibition of textiles and works of art from the National History Museum of Armenia and the Treasury of the Holy See of Edjmiadsin. Much credit is due to Maria-Anne Privat-Savigny, chief curator of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs de Lyon, who gave the go-ahead for the project to take place during the Year of Armenia.
This exhibition is divided into two exhibitions in two locations. The first, major one is at the Musée des Tissus de Lyon, presenting altar curtains, clothing and other textiles involved in the Armenian liturgy. The other, more private exhibition is at the Musée de Fourvière, presenting liturgical textiles such as embroidered mitres or chasubles, and in particular works of gold and silver.
I would advise visitors to start at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (1). There they will be able to admire choir curtains, altar curtains, altar frontals, chevet hangings, chasubles (churdjar, shurjar), tunic collars, priests’ albs (chabik, schabig), mitres (khoyr, ghoygh), sacerdotal headdresses (saghavart, saravart), chalice veils and other components of textile art associated with the Armenian liturgy (cuffs, stoles, epigonations [konk’er] etc…). Then they should visit the Musée de Fourvière, where the sight of the Catholico’s chasuble from the Treasury of Edjmiadsin alone is worth the journey (inv.628, cat.no.55).
It is the veracity, the authenticity of the works that first impressed me about these exhibitions. The gold is real gold, the silks have a sublime beauty, the materials overall are of prime excellence. The quality of the work is of the highest standard. The hours spent in embroidery, weaving and needlework were not stinted. Here one sees a character trait of the Armenian spirit since the 17th and 18th centuries, positioned in the culture of the true, the rich, the concrete – the culture of gold and linen – and not in the culture of appearances. These works of art testify and testified to the power and wealth of those who donated or commissioned them. Moreover, everyone gave depending on his ability to sacrifice his fortune, time or skill to make or have made the most beautiful, most lavish and most intelligent work.
Having lost their nation, Armenians concentrated a large part of their efforts and energy on gifts to their churches, standard-bearers of their identity. Gold and silk to demonstrate to all of you who I am, gold and silk for the salvation of my soul, gold and silk for the salvation of the Armenian community.
The second idea which struck me most concerning the creation of these works is the culture of diversity and of the spirit of eclecticism that they embody. On a technical level: the most sophisticated samite techniques using gold thread and silk are echoed by the simplest of technical methods: printing on fabric, the felting technique. The omophorion (yemiporum, cat.ill.83), dated in the catalogue to the 19th century but which I believe is in fact attributable to the 17th century, a jewel of technical prowess (samite), all gold thread and luxury, is countered by three choir curtains of painted cotton cloth attributed to the painter Poghos Ter-Mosevov (Boghos Ter-Mo[v]sesov). On an artistic level, the divergences are identical: one is transported from figurative art to the cartoon strip, as in a painted cotton choir curtain (cat.no.15, 3), or even to abstract art, as in an altar cloth of reserve-printed cotton (cat.no.106).
Antique silk embroidery by an Armenian woman in the armenian former territories now occupied by Turkey,
Andre Aboolian’s collection, Glendale, California. USA.
There is diversity of materials, from gold thread to linen; diversity of forms and formats, from the monumental to the very small; diversity of types of sensibility. All these probably derive from the fact that Armenians were scattered across the Middle East, the Far East and the West, and all these influences are reflected. From a very early date Armenians were trading between Amsterdam, Versailles, Marseille, Lyon, Genoa, Venice, Constantinople, Smyrna, Caesarea, Tiflis, Tabriz, Isfahan, Madras and Canton … Just as the Silk Route existed, so too did the Armenian route. These two trading routes often intersected and, for the Armenians, the major points of convergence were their major religious centres: Constantinople, Edjmiadsin and Jerusalem. In this respect, Armenian textile art was already an international art in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, reflecting a certain degree of “globalisation”. It spoke of Jerusalem while passing from Versailles to Madras.
The third idea I would like to address is the “deep” function of the Armenian textile arts. I am not talking about obvious primary functions – collar, chasuble, hanging, curtains etc – but of their deeper meaning, their absolute reason for existing.
The Armenian mass makes a maximum appeal to the five senses: hearing – the incredible beauty of the musical liturgy of the Armenian mass, half-canticle, half-opera; smell – the wafts of incense that intoxicate your nostrils; sight – the luxuriance of silks, gold, the colours associated with the scenography of the mass, inscribed in the architecture; touch – invoked by the multiple feel of textiles, materials, everything one can touch in a church, both by feeling it with their own hands and through the touch of fellow worshippers; and even taste, since in the Armenian Church almost everybody receives communion by ingesting mazz (a form of unleavened bread).
The Armenian mass is a concentration of paradise on earth. This testifies to a need for re-energisation in a hostile environment where massacres succeeded wars, where earthquakes were associated with genocide, where epidemics alternated with food shortages.
In order to soothe the Armenian soul, all these gold and silk textiles, veritable reflections of divine light, could only captivate and focus the attention. Religious clothing reflects an idealised vision of the Armenian nation. Gold glitters from all sides, captivating eye and spirit. These works – acting as a point of fixation for the concentration required on the parishioners’ part and as a sort of textile therapy – had the power to cauterise the grief of the Armenian people and contributed to the survival of the group.
These textiles relate both the history of the Armenians and that of Europeans and Asians. The Last Supper (inv.no.E-1986, cat.no.10), which includes figures wearing Dutch shoes and a typically Dutch copper lustrum, tells us as much about Dutch life in the 18th century as Armenian life. A choir curtain with a Crucifixion scene (inv.no.229, cat.no.16) reveals as much about Georgian as Armenian art. Another curtain whose subject is the Allegorical Baptism of Christ (inv.no.E-1985, cat.no.12, above), brings together influences from Mughal, Rhenish-Basle and Irano-Zoroastrian art in elements such as the Wildman and the treatment of the sun and moon.
Such influences, brought together, in no way stop me personally from feeling I am facing a work of Armenian art. This testifies to the formidable capacity of Armenians to adapt to others, to love and understand them, without forgetting their Armenian specificity. The important thing is not to fear other people and to remain onself.
This is a major exhibition. Without any doubt it marks the beginning of a series of exhibitions on textiles “swallowed up” during the communist years, both in Armenia and in some of the 14 other republics of the former Soviet bloc. One can start dreaming about seeing textile masterpieces from Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine … and indeed Russia. Curators of textile departments, fans of textile art, textile collectors, go and see it; it concerns you. There is no doubt that Armenians were active figures in textile creation in the Middle East and in Asia, and this exhibition is a dazzling demonstration of this. But in addition, for all those who feel themselves to be men and women of goodwill and who have had to suffer oppression, sorrow, it represents a marvellous hymn to life and to survival through the medium of the visual arts, and more particularly the textile arts.
The general organisers of the exhibition are Maria-Anne Privat-Savigny, assisted by Claire Clergue (Musée des Arts Décoratifs), and Bernard Berthod (Musée de Fourvière). Technical analyses were carried out skilfully by Marie-Hélène Guelton. The restoration workshop at the Musée des Tissus de Lyon is directed by Marie Schoefer and Denise Cotta.
LA NOUVELLE DJOULFA: 400 ans de présence arménienne en Iran
April – July 2007
It’s officially the Year of Armenia in France, and in a celebration that is not without sadness, members of Paris’s large and influential Armenian community have organised an exhibition at the
Maison des Arts in the town of Antony, near Orly Airport, to mark 400 years of the Armenian presence in New Julfa, the Armenian quarter of the central Persian city of Esfahan, which was founded early in the 17th century by Shah Abbas the Great for the more than 150,000 Armenians moved there by force from Julfa in Nakhichevan. Although primarilya nostalgic look at the history of New Julfa, and resting very heavily on late 19th and early 2oth century photographs of sites such as the Armenian School and Vank Cathedral, as well as of the families of members of the community, there were also a number of artefacts displayed, including items of costume and textiles, that relate directly to Armenian culture in Iran. Included among the latter was this 17th century northwest Persian/Caucasian embroidery, depicting the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, which was loaned for the exhibition by Artemis Achdjian. In addition to the Armenian crosses formed by the reciprocal space between the sixteen-sided star panels of the field, an Armenian Christian source is indicated by the drawing of the whale, shown as a giant scaly fish, which which in the embroidery appears beneath a stylized four-legged creature (with more crosses on its flanks), but which can also be seen beneath Jonah’s boat in an early 10th century bas relief in the Church of the Holy Cross in Aghtamar. see article
story of Jonah and the Whale. Embroidery by an Armenian woman from Nor-Djoulfa, Esfahan, Iran or from a town from the North West of Persia, 17th century. Artemis Achdjian’s collection
in memory of Megerditch Ohanian, born in Nor Djolfa (Iran) and dead in Glendale, Los Angeles, please, watch this video. Thanks to : Andre Aboolian, Harry Greenberg, Mark Weksler