The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently hosting a wonderful exhibit on Armenia during the Middle Ages. The exhibit contains major historical objects, including carved stone crosses, illuminated manuscripts, and reliquaries that have never traveled outside the country. And there is a connection for law-and-religion fans: Armenia was the first state in history to adopt Christianity as its religion, a generation or so before Rome (Marc DeGirolami, nota bene). Many of the objects on display reflect a particular relationship between church and state. Christian separationists rightly point to the potential for corruption when the church draws too close to the state, but there are advantages for the religion as well. It’s hard to imagine other institutions with the wherewithal to sponsor works of such beauty and intense spirituality, whose impact on viewers remains profound today.
Armenia bordered Christian Byzantium and Zoroastrian (and later Muslim) Persia, a position that often put it in a difficult political situation–what’s new?–but that also enriched its culture. Medieval Armenian culture was suffused with Christianity, as it remains, more or less, today. But that Christianity did not prevent Armenians from drawing from, and in turn influencing, surrounding cultures. So the exhibit will interest not only people who seek to understand the historical relationship between Christianity and the state, but among Christians and non-Christians in that part of the world.
Yale University Press has released the exhibit’s companion volume, Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, by Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator of medieval art. Here’s the description from Yale’s website:
A fascinating exploration of art created by the varied Armenian kingdoms that connected the East and West during the Middle Ages
As the first people to officially convert to Christianity, Armenians commissioned and produced astonishing religious objects. This sumptuous volume depicts and contextualizes the compelling works of art that defined the rich and complicated culture of medieval Armenians, including carvings, liturgical furnishings, beautifully illustrated manuscripts, gilded reliquaries, exquisite textiles, printed books, and more. Situated at the center of trade routes that connected the East and West during the Middle Ages, Armenia became a leading international trade partner for Seljuk, Mongol, Ottoman, and Persian overlords, while also serving as a powerful ally to Byzantium and European Crusader states. Written by a team of international scholars, with contributions from Armenian religious leaders, this book will stand as the definitive text on the art and culture of medieval Armenia.