Farewell to Mount Ararat

When we recently wrote about the joint exhibition of the Budapest History Museum and the national Széchényi Library on Hungarian Armenian culture, we raised only one criticism, for the lack of a catalog to present in detail the main topics of the exhibition. Two weeks ago, almost in the last moment before the closing of the exhibition, this catalog and collection of papers was finally published, and its presentation was held on 16 September as a final chord of the exhibition. After the presentation, probably as a compensation for the belated publication, a professional guided tour was offered to the audience. The great interest in the topic was clearly indicated by the fact that, due to the large number of the participants, the tour had to be realized in two separate groups.

The cult of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the apostle of the Armenians was unbroken from the beginnings among the Armenians of Transylvania. This is indicated by the large number of altarpieces representing the saint baptizing King Tiridates III of Armenia, among other in the Armenian churches of Szamosújvár (Gherla), Erzsébetváros (Dumbrăveni), Csíkszépvíz (Frumoasa), or in the Franciscan churches of Dés (Dej) and Nagyszeben (Sibiu).

The settlements of the Armenians in Transylvania

The altarpieces of the Armenian church of Gyergyószentmiklós (Gheorgheni) and of the Salamon Church in Szamosújvár (Gherla) differ from the rest of these representations. Although their central scene is the same baptism, this is encircled by a “narrative frame”, a set of medaillons illustrating the tortures of St. Gregory, and thus connecting these images more closely with the late 5th-century History of the Armenians by Agathangelos, which narrates the legend of the saint. The Gyergyószentmiklós altarpiece is an especially nice evidence of this connection, as the medaillons are also accompanied by brief explanatory texts.

The former altarpiece of the Salamon Church in Szamosújvár, early 18th c.
(Armenian Catholic Parish, Szamosújvár / Gherla)

Our guide, Emese Pál pointed out a curiosity in the Szamosújvár painting, which has not been mentioned either at the exhibition or in the catalog. A restorer, probably not knowing the legend of the saint – which recounts the transformation of the king into a wild boar after incarcerating Gregory – misunderstood the medallion representing this scene, and “corrected” the crowned boar into a lamb.

For the large number of small discoveries accompanying an exhibition, a good example is the painting of Szamosújvár, which was hitherto supposed to represent Stephanowicz Roska, the Armenian provost of Stanisławów. The unveiling of the misidentification, told Emese Pál, was the merit of a lady visiting the exhibition from Lemberg, who pointed out, that on the basis of local analogies the portrait represents the Armenian archbishop of Lemberg, Jacob Stephan Augustinowicz. In fact, the inventories of Szamosújvár listed it as Augustinowicz’s portrait until as long as 1877, when a careful hand stroke out his name and wrote Roska’s above it, thereby misleading generations of researchers, from the 19th-century Armenian monographer of Szamosújvár Kristóf Szongott until today.

The studies in the catalog – about which we will write separately – are organized around the themes presented in the exhibition, expanding in a shorter or longer extent the historical and social context of the Transylvanian Armenians, which we previously missed so much, or eventually go further on certain topics not touched in the exhibition. Such are the writings of the two Armenian authors, Armenuhi Drost-Abgarjan’s beautiful essay on the Armenian art of writing and book culture, and Meliné Pehlivanian’s brief summary on the beginnings of Armenian typography. As to the Hungarian aspects, the essay of Máté Tamáska deserves special mention, as it presents the culturally diverse urban milieu of Szamosújvár, the place of origin of most of the exhibited items, which rather remained in the background at the exhibition.

The overall picture emerging from the papers – perhaps because of the tight deadline – seems a bit slim, but the ground-breaking character of the exhibition, together with the important works published in the last few years, compensates for this impression, and will hopefully prepare the ground for further, deeper researches. We are looking forward to the continuation.

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Rupert Neil Bumfrey dijo...

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