When art and religion collide
Seven illustrated pages ripped out of a medieval Gospels manuscript: Who owns them; who should own them? Those who value them as works of art, or those who revere them as religious objects? The seven pages feature beautiful illuminations by Toros Roslin, the most important Armenian miniatures painter of the Middle Ages. Their value is immense as artifacts, but also as rare witnesses to the memory of a nation almost erased from history. The manuscript from which the pages were torn was lost during the Armenian genocide of 1915-22. The Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America believes those seven pages are holy and belong to the church: It is suing the J. Paul Getty Museum to get them back. The Getty says it owns the pages as works of art and acquired them legally.
The story begins in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time of the Crusades. The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, located in Asia Minor, was a cultural crossroads. Its far-flung commercial and cultural ties paved the way for artistic ideas to circulate between Europe and the Middle East and East Asia. In his workshop in the fortress of Hromkla (now Rumkale, Turkey), Roslin illustrated the Gospels in 1256 for the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Constantine I. The pages at the Getty feature Canon Tables -- concordance lists of passages that relate the same events in the four Gospels. Roslin enlivened his work with ornate frames and scenes of birds and flowers.
The finished Gospels, used in the Church of Zeytun (now Suleymanli, Turkey), acquired a reputation for supernatural powers. Priests paraded the book in the city streets to ensure the protection of Zeytun at the onset of World War I. In the chaos of 1915, the Zeytun Bible was entrusted to an individual for safekeeping.
From that point, the lawsuit’s reconstructed chain of custody dovetails with the tragic history of the Armenians in the first half of the 20th century. During the genocide and in its aftermath of dispossession and exile, the Zeytun Gospels was lost and dismembered. When church officials recovered the manuscript around the time of World War II, they discovered that seven pages had been torn out. The manuscript ended up at the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan, Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union. In 1994, the missing pages resurfaced publicly at an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, loaned by an anonymous U.S. collector, who apparently sold them to the Getty.
The Armenian Church says it pressed its claim with the Getty without satisfactory results. It is now suing for the return of the pages as well as millions of dollars in damages. The Getty “knew or should have known that the ... pages were stolen,” according to the lawsuit. The Getty says that the pages have been in the U.S. for more than 90 years with no one questioning their legal status and that the suit should be dismissed.
But more entities have a stake in this fight than just the Getty and the Armenian Church. Some obvious parties have remained silent. The Republic of Armenia is not involved, even though the museum in its capital now houses the Zeytun Gospels. Perhaps more intriguing is the absence of the Republic of Turkey. The seven pages were created and used for centuries in what is now Turkey. Shouldn’t Turkey argue for its interest in the seven pages, which stand as monuments to the history and art of a community that has been an integral part of the republic and the Ottoman Empire from which it descends?
What does their absence from the discussion reveal? Armenia is a small, newly independent nation that has not campaigned internationally for the recovery of cultural artifacts. By contrast, Turkey is a regional power with a well-developed tourist industry. It is home to some of the world’s most significant cultural heritage sites, including ancient Troy. The Turkish state has requested the return of artifacts and structures removed from its territory, such as the Hellenistic-period altar of Pergamon now in a museum in Berlin. In general, however, Armenian monuments in Turkey have been allowed to decay; scholars have documented hundreds of neglected sites.
Politics are often at the center of decisions on what to do about cultural heritage. This is precisely why prominent international organizations, such as UNESCO, have worked to depoliticize art of worldwide significance by identifying cultural properties that testify to the achievements of humanity -- and belong, therefore, to all of us. But what about small groups’ rights to control their own cultural heritage?
There is still time to address the conflict over the Zeytun Gospels’ seven pages in a way that balances the claims and goals of both sides. Consider this case: In the 1990s, when Byzantine frescoes looted from a church in northern Cyprus appeared on the market, American philanthropist Dominique de Menil reached an agreement with the Orthodox Church of Cyprus to purchase and restore the fragments. The wall paintings are now owned by the church but are displayed as the centerpiece of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston. At once reliquary, museum and church, it is an extraordinary space where the art value and religious value of the paintings coexist in a deeply moving and thought-provoking presentation.
A similar approach could be used for the seven pages of the Zeytun Gospels. The parties should cooperate to create an innovative space where the pages can recover some of their spiritual function, while remaining available for the study and enjoyment of the largest possible number of museum visitors and scholars. A competition could be held to design a venue on the Getty campus to house the pages so they could function simultaneously as works of art and as religious objects.
The tragic story of the mutilated manuscript can be part of the exhibition. The Armenian Church could have some control over these pages whose continuing separation from the rest of the Zeytun Bible mirrors the dispossession and dispersal of the Armenians themselves. Indeed, keeping the pages in this manner in Los Angeles would be particularly apt, as it is home to the second-largest Armenian community outside of Armenia -- most of them descendants of survivors of the genocide.
Deciding the fate of Toros Roslin’s illuminated pages challenges us to consider what art is and why it matters. Whatever the legalities in this case, the claims of both parties have merit. Finding a middle ground that serves both sides ought to be the goal.