Exhibition Review: Armenia. Art, Objects, Body Parts, and Books

Armenia!“, now on view at the Met, is one of the largest Armenian art shows ever in North America, containing more than 140 works of art, objects, body parts (in reliquaries), and books. It is not only a great art exhibition, but a great show for bibliophiles: roughly half the items on view are books. The show spreads calmly over seven galleries, with no videos or recorded sounds playing, and ample space between the objects. Even though it was packed with viewers the Sunday afternoon I visited, there weren’t lines in front of any particular object. The minimal gallery introductions and short captions reinforced a direct engagement with the objects, rather than reading about them. Interspersing the books with other objects initiated a dialogue between them.

Gospel Book with Gilded-Silver Covers and Embroidered Pouch. J. P. Morgan MS M.621. I’ve never seen another binding that has just one spine strap, like this one. Did it serve as a means of attachment to something else?

The craft similarities between reliquaries and full-metal books were hard to miss. For example, the 17th century gilded silver covers on the Gospel Book above, and the Hand Reliquary of Saint Abulmuse (L.1988.63) have a very similar construction. The stunning covers of both signal their importance as objects of veneration, and at the same time hide their inner contents. The insides of these objects are deeply personal, and almost at odds with the elaborately decorated exterior.  The reliquary houses body parts of someone, the book houses the thoughts of someone. Is there an object that does both?

Expositionitis. n. [ek-spuh-zish-uhn-ahy-tis] : A horrible desease that temporarily blinds museum professionals to the actual objects in an exhibition. Instead, the afflicted spend all their time looking at a crooked frame, an over cut mat, how a particular object was repaired or strapped, prominent shadows, a dust bunny in the corner of a case, etc…  “I didn’t even notice the carved ivory elephant in the corner, my expositionitis was so bad!”

I must have had a mild attack, since I am still thinking about a number of books open to a full 180 degrees, which can cause stress to the binding. A more restricted opening is generally better, and it is still relatively easy to view a two page spread. It also sets a poor precedent for the display of books in such a pre-eminant institution.

Alexander Romance, Sulu Manastir, 1544. Copied and illuminated by Zak’ariay of Gnunik’; d. 1576. John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK. Kasemake cradle by Mark Furness.

Mark Furness, Senior Conservator at the University of Manchester, designed and made an interesting cradle. He and Elaine Sheldon have been working for a number of years on museum board cradles cut on a Kasemake boxmaking machine. I like the softness of museum board when making contact with leather. Some might find the aesthetics slightly distracting, though I’m sure this is something that is evolving. Mark also did a great job of strapping: note the zero textblock sag. An advantage is it ships completely flat for easy transport, and assembles without any adhesives. This version is quite strong and easily supports a heavy parchment textblook/ wooden board book easily. These cradles are inexpensive and easy to recycle.

I’m glad to see someone experimenting with something other than acrylic. Acrylic is so hard and flat, it rarely conforms closely with the undulations of hand made book boards and hand pared leather, let alone metal furniture. This can result in the weight of a book being concentrated in a few small areas.

Grakal, Liturgical Book Stand , 1272 with modern additions. History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan (171).

The most interesting cradle, technically a book stand, was this 13th century grakal, a liturgical book stand. Although it is similar to an Islamic rehal, there are important differences. A traditional rehal is cut from a single piece of wood. The grakel was made of two seporate pieces. How they hinge together is also quite different.

A modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. This is one plank that has been partially cut into two.

To make a rehal, holes are drilled, as you can see in the image below. Then a thin sawblade, like a coping or turning saw, is inserted and the joints cut, and the plank cut in two. The ways a book sits in a rehal or grakal are also quite different. A book in a rehal sits in this cut out hinge, which also flattens out, creating a space for the spine. A book in a grakal sits on top of the leather sling, and has a metal rod that the two sides hinge from. Both, however, are lightweight, collapsable, portable, and support a book in use.

Detail of the hinge of a modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. A small saw blade was inserted into the drilled holes to begin the cuts. Making a model of one of these is on my to do list.
Detail of hinge area of the Grakal. Note the seam from the two pieces of wood.

I’m almost certain the top and bottom parts of this grakal are made from separate pieces of wood and glued together. The book rests on a leather top piece which lessens the stress on the hinge. Given the fact it has held up for nine centuries, the construction is more than adequate!

Gospel Book, Monastery of Manuk Surb Nshan, K’ajberunik’, 1386. J. Paul Getty Museum (MS Ludwig II 6).

My favorite piece in the show is this page from a Gospel Book, 1386. On the top are two scribes, and under them are two students burnishing the paper in preparation for writing, with extremely tall burnishers. Stylistically, they look quite similar to smaller, one handed Western glass mullers. The scribe mentions, in the text, he wanted to thank the students  (“his angels”) for this generally thankless, but important task. Paper was burnished to make it smoother for painting and writing on, and more parchment-like in appearance.

The last gallery of the show included a number of highly skilled manuscripts made in the 17th century. It surprised me to see the skilled transmission of craft skills persisting so late into what we in the West consider print culture. One of the primary takeaways from the show was how Armenia does not fit neatly into the Eastern-Western culture divisions many of us still regularly invoke, as well as challenging our notion of when Medieval culture ended.

If you can’t make it to the show, which closes January 13, 2019, the catalog is very informative, with all 143 objects described in text and photographs, and several longer essays. NY TImes review of Armenia!

14 Replies to “Exhibition Review: Armenia. Art, Objects, Body Parts, and Books”

  1. We toyed with the idea of some sort of sling method, little did I realise it’s been done before and so hard-wearing. Another refinement to consider

  2. Yea, there seems to be a lot of room to experiment. Since they ship flat, it seems there could be a business of making them for other institutions from their measurement and opening?

  3. We’ve done a few for other institutions to fairly positive effect, the problem is picking a price and it still needs some refinement. It would be nice to make it available to more, even if it was a spreadsheet that spat out the dimensions of the pieces, but ideally as a low cost product from a mount-makers or a suppliers… the work continues

  4. Hi Jeff, I loved your new post about the Armenia! show at the Met! I was also struck by how closely the Bible stand resembles medieval Qur’an stands. In fact, there’s a stand in the Met’s Islamic galleries that looks almost exactly like the Armenian one, except it doesn’t have a carved cross, obviously. I was kind of surprised that no mention was made of that similarity, since Armenia was so culturally close to Iran for so long. One thought about the first picture you displayed, I think the part that looks like a spine strap is actually part of the book mount… when I was working at NYBG we exhibited about 30 publishers bindings mounted to the wall, and we had to stay until 10pm the night before the press preview, painting all of the brass clips to blend in with the bindings 🙂 I’m actually taking a seminar course at NYU which is based around this very exhibition, and am writing a paper about the 15/16th century model book. (I’m trying to test the limits of “technical art history,” by writing by about a book that I can’t touch.) In fact today at 2:00 we’re meeting with the show’s curator, Helen Evans, to discuss the exhibit with her. I don’t know if I’m allowed to invite you, but if you have any burning questions, I’d be happy to ask her! Hope you’re doing well, and enjoy your Thanksgiving, -Cat


  5. Just congratulate her on a fantastic show! I’m looking forward to reading what you come up with for your paper.

    So are you suggesting the spine strap was attached to the book for the purpose of an exhibition? Or that is was some original method of storing the book by hanging it on a wall? It does fit into a later pouch.

  6. And let her know that the paper burnishing leaf has slipped out of the strap, clearly visible in my last image. It should be fixed ASAP as soon as the Getty gives permission. The exhibitionitis lingers!

  7. Hey, Jeff, Great writeup, thanks for calling this exhibit to our attention! On the first pictured book, what is the spine material? If leather, what are all the regular bumps? Certainly looks sturdy.

  8. They are metal, but I’m not sure what type, how they are attached, or what they are attached to!

  9. I’m not clear what you are calling a spine strap on the Gospel. What I see at the top of the spine is a part of the object mount which restrains the book from falling forward. Is that what you are calling a spine strap?

  10. Yes, thanks for clarifying. I thought it was a part of the book, not part of the mount. Good eyes!

  11. Hey! I am so glad to know it was a good show! Isn’t that Armenian liturgical book sling cool? And it’s depicted in the framed illumination on the wall across from the reading sling. The person to tell the exhibit page has come away from its strapping is Yana. She will get on it. Exhibitionitus. I have to fight this dread disease myself.

  12. Great write-up, but the Whackypedia reference to a “rehal” or riḥāl (رحال) as the term for a traditional Islamic book stand is odd, for it is actually the plural form of raḥil (رَحل), which is the common term in Arabic. Other terms encountered are raḥla (رحلة), and kursī (كرسي), the latter is often used today in Egypt. (See Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscript Tradition, 54 and idem, Arabic Manuscript Tradition: Supplement, 28, who cites Lane’s Lexicon among other sources). Raḥil is also used in Persian and Urdu, while rahle, derived from the Arabic raḥla, is used in Modern Turkish. Note that these terms apply to all manner of lecterns, cradles, and book stands, not only for Qur’an manuscripts (muṣḥāf/maṣāḥif) but also for reading other books. Very large cradles, replete with a platform for the reader to sit upon, were constructed to accompany very large luxury manuscripts placed in elite mosques during the Mamluk period. While small stands are commonly cut from a single piece of wood, others are also made of laminates (for example, inlaid khatam-kārī stands produced in Iran). Finally, the Armenian example in the exhibition appears—at least to my eye—to be cut from a single piece of wood, judging from the continuous grain observed not only on the outer face, but also the rough side on the part immediately behind it in your detail shot. I suspect the line was simply a mark made by the carpenter to demarcate where to cut the plank?

  13. Thanks Jake! I appreciate the info from an expert. I looked again my photos and am pretty sure (but not 100%) it is separate pieces of wood. Also, I don’t see any pilot holes where they would have inserted the saw blade to start the cuts in the middle.

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