Art history professor Christina Maranci to speak on Armenian art, new book

The cover of Professor of Art History Christina Maranci's book, 'The Art of Armenia: An Introduction,' is pictured. Courtesy Christina Maranci

Christina Maranci will give a lecture on her recently published book, “The Art of Armenia: An Introduction,” on Oct. 4, in which she will discuss the meaning and content of her book, as well as her own academic and creative processes. Maranci serves as chair of Tufts’ Art History department, as well as the Arthur H. Dadian and Ara T. Oztemel Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture. The talk is co-sponsored by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), the Tufts Armenian Club and the Darakjian Jafarian Chair in Armenian History at Tufts. “The Art of Armenia,” Maranci’s fourth book to date, seems to have been a long time coming.

As Maranci explains, the book is not intended to provide a comprehensive study of Armenian art but rather to give a solid overview of the region’s complicated cultural and artistic history.

“My book is a general study of Armenian art from the Paleolithic period to the early 18th century, [including] all media [and] all regions of historical Armenia,” Maranci told the Daily in an email.

This includes a range of artifacts, from Armenia’s famed illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages to the oldest shoe ever discovered.

Creating an accessible guide to Armenian art presents a more significant challenge than many, including even some art historians, might think. Historically, Armenian territory has included large swaths of the Middle East and Caucasus regions. As a result, Armenian culture has adopted and appropriated elements of many other civilizations and empires, ranging from Urartu to Rome to Persia, and has become even more complex after the nationwide conversion to Christianity in the late third or early fourth century AD. After the Sassanian Period, Armenia became part of the Umayyad Caliphate, as well as the Byzantine Empire. It was partially conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and Western Armenia remained under Ottoman control until the mass killings and deportations of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 — a label still rejected by Turkey and not recognized by the United States.

“The Art of Armenia” attempts to outline all of these cultural elements in a comprehensive way. As a result of its diverse history, the historical aesthetic of Armenian art is multi-faceted and often inconsistent. This may explain why so many art historians tend to overlook the significance of Armenia, according to Maranci. It is not that Armenia is an obscure, empty country; on the contrary, it is fascinating and rich to the point of inconvenience for anyone trying to construct a clear narrative of its artistic tradition. The lack of thorough yet accessible books about Armenian art history compelled Maranci to develop one.

“I wrote it because I needed a good text to assign to my students,” Maranci said. “Available literature was either outdated or at the wrong level.”

Maranci specified that although a great body of work has been written about Armenian art, much of it is dense, specialized and in languages like Armenian, Russian and French. This makes these sources inaccessible to many people seeking an introduction to Armenian art. For this reason, Maranci has also made the effort to cite mostly English and French-language sources in the bibliography of “The Art of Armenia.”

Not only is the book useful for art history students and professors who want to consider Armenia as a case study at the crossroads of cultures, it also gives Armenians to appreciate their own heritage, according to Maranci, who is Armenian herself and was galvanized by the Armenian community’s need for self-appreciation.

This personal connection manifests itself in Maranci’s sense of urgency against the cultural destruction of Armenian art, particularly that of churches standing in the historical Armenian state, whose borders have included parts of modern-day Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran and Georgia. Maranci’s interest in the preservation of these churches began in 2013, when she visited the Cathedral of Mren in Turkey. After studying and exploring the cathedral from afar, she arrived in Turkey to find it semi-collapsed and in a state of ruin. In 2015, the World Monuments Fund and the U.S. Department of State’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation used three-dimensional scanning and extensive documentation to prepare an emergency conservation plan.

Although Maranci is not a conservator, she and other scholars have attempted to gain access to sites like the Mren Cathedral for research purposes, only to be blocked or even apprehended by the Turkish government. Mren is in a militarized zone, which is partially responsible for its inaccessibility to foreign researchers. Moreover, the cathedral has been left to crumble for hundreds of years quite intentionally. For this reason, Maranci’s book includes a postscript on issues of cultural memory and heritage, particularly in light of the Genocide of 1915–1922.”

Artifacts from around the world are currently locked in transnational debates over their repatriation and right to cultural heritage. It seems that political and geographical struggles for power are as relevant to Armenia today as they were in antiquity.

Despite the plethora of challenges for those interested in studying Armenian art, it seems to be gaining appreciation in the United States, including at Tufts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art debuted its “Armenia!” exhibit on Sept. 22, describing it as “the first major exhibition to explore the remarkable artistic and cultural achievements of the Armenian people in a global context over fourteen centuries.” In Boston this month, the South End’s Galatea Fine Art has hosted an exhibit called “Resiliency and Resistance,” which showcases the contemporary artwork of four Armenian women. At Tufts, Maranci’s course “Armenian Art, Architecture & Politics” has gone from a novelty of the art history department to a popular class in its own right; the course’s enrollment this fall is among its highest to date.

Maranci’s lecture on Oct. 4 is an exciting opportunity for her to showcase her book and its journey, which she has described as a labor of love.

“So much of book-writing is solitary, and this will give me a chance to talk about the problems of writing, the revelations of writing it and [to] give people an inside peek into the book,” Maranci said.

She hopes to communicate “how astonishing Armenian art is,” while highlighting the tragedy of its exclusion from Western art history.

“The Art of Armenia: An Illustrated Lecture by Dr. Christina Maranci” will be on Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Alumnae Lounge. The event is free and open to the public.


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