Armenian Manuscripts @ Bodleian

The history and culture of Armenia is unknown to most. To Gallery Girl however, it is extremely familiar. This should not be surprising when I tell you that I am in fact half Armenian, and fiercely proud of my heritage. Armenia should be more famous than being the ancestral homeland of the Kardashians. In fact Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity and is the birthplace to a rich culture of arts and history. There is currently a display of Armenian manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, and it could not have been displayed at a more appropriate time.

2015 marked the centenary of the Armenian Genocide as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the University of Oxford’s Calouste Gulbenkian Professorship of Armenian Studies, from the Gulbenkian Foundation that I have also previously won founding from. The exhibition, which opened in October brings attention to the objects and possessions of a diaspora that is now spread across the world, spanning a time period of more than two millennia.

The Bodleian first began collecting Armenian manuscripts in the seventeenth-century, although the majority of the manuscripts of display are far older. The books on display include the only known copy of the first book printed in Iran, a book of Psalms from 1638. Also of note is the display of a gospel manuscript that displays a demon that has been rubbed out by pious readers. Many of the printed works are beautifully illustrated in vibrant and luxurious colours. The literature on display also highlights the beauty of the Armenian alphabet, which was invented by St. Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD. As someone who can read Armenian, it was also interesting to see the reactions to the other visitors to an alphabet that was completely foreign to them, and I must admit, it was quite amusing knowing that my mother and I were probably the only people in the room who can actually read what was on display.

Manuscripts are not the only objects on display however. Also on show are maps, coins and photographs. There are even textiles, very similar to the lace that my mother owns and that was hand made by my great-grandmother.

The exhibition, co-curated by Theo Maarten van Lint and Robin Meyer and titled Armenia: Masterpieces from an Enduring Culture celebrates the nation’s rich history. While I personally have issue with the term ‘endurance’ I can see why it might be used given the Armenian people’s intense history and I believe the exhibition should be applauded for presenting it’s past so beautifully.

Armenia: Masterpieces from an Enduring Culture is on display at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford until 28 February

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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