The people of Armenia heard the Gospel rather early in history, and their land was the site of much activity during the patristic era. Armenian Christians knew persecution back then — and often again through the centuries since then. The International Herald Tribune can’t help but tell the story as it covers “Armenia Sacra,” an exhibit at the Louvre until May 21.
What mostly survives is the art of religion, the hard-core to which the persecuted cling and carry away if portable. Otherwise it is fragments collected from ruins. Hence the title … “Armenia Sacra” …
Armenia had a very long past when King Tiridate made it the first country where Christianity was declared the state religion around 313, when Byzantium only made its worship permissible…
[The influences of both eastern and western cultures are apparent in] the first art spawned by the advent of Christianity of which the earliest surviving fragments do not predate the 5th century A.D. However disparate these look stylistically, they mostly share a monumental quality and an austere gravity maintained even when startling irony creeps in. Figural art, sometimes rough, invariably explodes with vigor. On one capital of starkly geometrical shape from Dvin, a Virgin and Child carved in low relief stare hypnotically at the viewer. It has a Romanesque feel to it but is not later than the 5th or 6th century A.D.
The stem of a stone cross also from Dvin is topped by the head of Jesus in a style strangely reminiscent of the human masks found in early 1st millennium B.C. bronzes from Luristan, in western Iran.
This aesthetic diversity was maintained into the 7th century A.D. if the datings suggested by art historians are right.
And see the little page at the Louvre’s site: “For the first time, the Louvre will present an exhibition devoted to Armenian Christian art, dating from Saint Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of the country in the early 4th century to the dawn of the 19th century.”
“Gregory the Illuminator” — the name would have been perfect, really, for a character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger twenty years ago, in a movie with lots of special effects.