NEW YORK — Orson Welles, in “The Third Man,” posited a cynical theory of what makes some cultures creative and others not: “In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” This isn’t a fair summation of the creative potential of peace or democracy, and only slightly more accurate about the cultural accomplishments of the Swiss. But an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art seems to prove the same thing by inverting the logic.
A sumptuous survey of early Christian art in Armenia suggests that no matter how scattered the people, no matter how frequent the wars or painful the disruptions, nothing could dim the Armenian cultural efflorescence.
“Armenia: Art, Religion and Trade in the Middle Ages” surveys Christian creativity from the origins of Armenian Christianity in the 4th through the 17th centuries, when the circulation of printed books connected the region and its people to the broader cultural currents of the Renaissance.
Most of the more than 140 objects on display speak to the role of Christianity in the cultural definition of the Armenian people. When early-4th-century King Tiridates converted his country to the religion, Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt the new faith, and a four-side carved stella from the 4th to 5th centuries underscores the colorful legends that grew up around that decision. One panel shows a richly dressed man with a boar’s head, probably Tiridates, whose path to conversion begins with a murderous assault on Christian nuns, for which he was magically transformed into a boar-headed figure, before finally seeing the error of his ways and adopting the new dogma. (He apparently returned to human form.)
That story contains a bit of the Odyssey or some other contemporaneous legend mixed in, and that becomes a recurrent theme of the exhibition.
The Armenians were consistently stuck between larger and contentious powers, between the Byzantine Empire and Persians, and often unhappily on the front lines of incursions into the Mediterranean world by the Mongols. Arab forces inspirited with Islam were a threat, the Mamluks menaced, and large parts of the Armenian homeland were ruled at times by Umayyads, Abbasids and Seljuks. The Crusader states established along the eastern Mediterranean by Western Europeans in the 12th and 13th centuries became another power to contend with, sometimes offering chances for constructive alliance, sometimes a more coercive force, but generally a fruitful source of new iconography and cultural exchange.
Armenia also straddled major trade routes linking East and West, and much of the exhibition details the wealth and variety of objects that eventually made their way into Armenian strongholds that were secure enough to preserve prosperity for a time. A delicate white ceramic bowl looks like Chinese manufacture but was probably made in Iran in the 11th to 12th century. A page from a 13th-century chronicle by Matthew Paris in England shows Noah’s ark resting on a stumpy mountain, visual evidence of one of Armenia’s most striking claims to Judeo-Christian centrality, as the final resting spot of the floating menagerie atop Mount Ararat.
The habit of syncretic thinking runs deep in the material on view. In three manuscripts, the same nearly identical figure of a fantastic composite beast appears, some kind of four-legged griffin, with its body composed of other animals, including fish and perhaps birds, and even a few human heads. It appears in a pattern book probably used by manuscript illustrators and in a 16th-century illustration from an Armenian translation of the Alexander Romance (a fanciful collection of legends and tales of the historical conqueror of the ancient world). It shows up again, slightly altered, in another edition of the same book, the Romance of Alexander.
In the pattern book, it is probably a mythical figure taken from Persian or Mughal sources, but in the Alexander romance, it represents the great warrior’s horse, Bucephalus. And why not? We think with the thoughts we have ready to hand, repurposing old ideas for new needs. One might say the illustrator lacked imagination and left us an absurdity; or one might acknowledge that the same mental methodology has given us our new religions, new philosophies and new political ideologies.
Armenian culture didn’t just absorb the currents flowing through and around it. Diffusion was an essential force, as well, as Armenian diaspora grew up in cities around the world. Armenians played a vital role in the Byzantine Empire, formed communities in Jerusalem and Aleppo and Constantinople, intermarried with the French crusaders, resettled in Crimea and established footholds along pilgrimage routes in Italy.
Some of the most stunning pieces on display are from New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan in what is now Iran. The Armenian community began there after some 150,000 Armenians were forced out of the old city of Julfa in what is now Azerbaijan. The relocation was painful, but under the relatively benevolent protection of the Safavids, the Armenians thrived in New Julfa, commissioning books, building churches and elegant homes, and serving as an essential source of funding to the shahs.
But consider a carved stone “Khachkar,” a distinctive religious stella depicting the cross, and one of several exquisite examples of this particularly Armenian form on view. It was made in the old city of Julfa in 1586, and near the end of the period covered in this exhibition (roughly the 17th century), there were some 10,000 of them preserved in Julfa. Many were lost during the construction of a railroad in 1903-1904, though about 3,000 remained near the end of 1990s. Only about 30 survive today, after the army of Azerbaijan destroyed them between 1998 and 2005, one of several infamous assaults on Armenian culture, including the Turkish genocide near the end of World War I.
Those crimes remain unacknowledged by their perpetrators, unpunished and unatoned for. And that might make one rethink first thoughts: that Armenians somehow proved that culture can thrive despite violence and disruption. Cultures can, and have. But how might Armenian culture have thrived had it enjoyed the stability and prosperity that gave the Swiss their cuckoo clocks?
Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 13. For information, visit metmuseum.org.