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Genocide, that most horrific of crimes, does not leave untouched any fragment of human identity. Yet for genocide to succeed, it must not only extinguish individual human lives—it must erase all traces of the presence of a people, of a people’s identity. While we often focus on the human subject as victim of genocide, the vehemence with which cultural atrocities are perpetrated, and the chilling consistency with which they occur in tandem with the elimination of human lives, makes clear that art and material culture matters in the dismantling of what it means to be human. Long before Hitler, long before ISIS, perpetrators of genocide understood the totalizing power of cultural destruction. Perhaps worse than death, then, is cultural death: the death of a people.
The words of victims of cultural cleansing leave no doubt that the loss of the objects that define identity is often felt to be as devastating as the loss of human lives. In exile in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey, in 1921, watching an olive seller wrap his fruit, the Armenian Prelate of Aleppo Ardavazt Surmeyan noticed the wrappings were pieces of parchment bearing medieval Armenian script. Surmeyan felt as though he were “choking” (181). He later watched helplessly, in desperation, as precious religious vessels and vestments were sold as trinkets in the market by junk dealers. These objects, now destroyed, lost, melted down, or sold into private collections around the world, were the material traces of a once-rich, cohesive, vibrant community of Armenian Christians. What Surmeyan witnessed in Erzurum was the fragmentation of identity perpetrated by the Armenian Genocide (1915–23), one more attempt in an ongoing effort to grind those venerated carriers of cultural memory into dust.
Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh’s painstakingly researched, emotionally wrenching book presents the story of one of these fragments: the Zeytun Gospels, created in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in 1256 by one of the greatest illuminators of the medieval era, Toros Roslin. Watenpaugh traces the history of the book from its creation to the present, bringing the pieces of one manuscript’s fragmented history back into a transformed yet coherent whole. Watenpaugh’s book also serves as a roadmap to current debates and concerns within the contested field of human rights and cultural heritage. Over the past decade the fields of art history, archaeology, and museum studies have rethought their role, and their moral culpability, in the cultural and market economies that fuel the antiquities trade. Conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have erased any pretense that scholars can remain neutral about the histories of the objects upon which we build our careers. Watenpaugh directs our attention away from the abstract legal or theoretical framings of heritage, instead weaving an intimate tale of a single object’s subjective value to named, known human beings—their loves, lives, fears, and losses. Her narrative reveals why the heritage objects we often term “art” are not merely neutral signifiers of aesthetic or historical value, but potent, eloquent carriers of human experience and identity—living, even animate objects, or as Watenpaugh terms them, survivor objects (40).
Watenpaugh’s narrative begins with her own enmeshment as both an art historian of the medieval Middle East and as a scholar of Armenian descent living and working in California, where the eponymous “missing pages” now reside. Today, the manuscript exists as a sundered object. The mother manuscript is in the Matenadaran (the Mesrop Mashtots Research Institute for Ancient Manuscripts) in Yerevan, Armenia, while the sixteen parchment folios of the Canon Tables (a concordance of the passages that relate similar events in the four Gospels) now reside in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Watenpaugh’s attention was captured by a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America against the Getty, demanding restitution of the Canon Tables on grounds that they had been stolen during the genocide. Watenpaugh’s 2010 Los Angeles Times op-ed on the subject of the manuscript was prescient, arguing for a settlement in which the Canon Tables could fulfil dual functions as both holy object and work of art. In many ways, the settlement reached in 2015 has achieved that aspiration: the church agreed to donate the Canon Tables to the museum in exchange for recognition that the church had been the rightful owner all along. The settlement also provides for the Canon Tables and the mother manuscript to be reunited periodically in both Armenia and at the Getty.
It is impossible to summarize Watenpaugh’s richly layered, intimate exposition; among the book’s virtues is its absorbing, immersive scope and detail. It is anchored by moving stories of the numerous individuals who cared for, fought for, carried, prayed with, and researched the Gospels: Asadur Surenian, a fierce, powerful local elder in Zeytun who, in 1915, removed the manuscript to Marash during the genocide. Dr. Harutiwn Der Ghazarian, a learned surgeon in Marash, who safeguarded the Gospels from 1916 to 1920. The thirteen-year-old Hagop Atamian, who may have been the one to excise the Canon Tables during the Battle of Marash (1920) and later brought them to the United States. The art historian Sirarpie Der Nersessian, who published the first article about the Gospels in 1952. Attorney Vartkes Yeghiayan, who fought for the settlement eventually reached with the Getty. And now, Watenpaugh herself.
Chapter 1 is a primer on current discourses on progressive, human-rights-oriented framings of heritage: indeed, this chapter could stand alone as a reading on provenance and art restitution. Here, Watenpaugh presents the manuscript as both witness to and metaphor for human genocide, and she argues powerfully for the role of objects as active carriers of human identity and thus for the need to protect and preserve culture alongside human lives. Chapter 2 begins with the manuscript’s beginnings, in the thirteenth century scriptorium of the Armenian citadel of Hromkla, where the master illuminator Toros Roslin created his masterpiece. One of Watenpaugh’s key contentions is that the Zeytun Gospels constitute no ordinary book. For Armenians, holy books like the Zeytun Gospels are living objects, emanations of the “breath of God.” They are not primarily meant to be read or appreciated for their aesthetic qualities alone; rather, their aesthetic qualities function to enhance and deepen the manuscript’s true purpose: to symbolize the presence of Jesus Christ among the congregants (65–66). This idea of a living heritage object is an important theme and brings Watenpaugh’s argument into line with current scholarship on repatriation, which rejects the European post-Enlightenment view of art objects as static bearers of historical or aesthetic significance. The Gospels functioned as a vital, active, liturgical, and spiritual object with a life of its own, made animate by the very breath of God. Watenpaugh embraces the post-Gellian view of art objects as active agents in the world. Similarly, African, Native American, Asian, and other groups affirm that cultural objects curated and displayed in Western museums have experienced not just a transformation of their purpose and meaning but a death of the spirit.
Chapters 3 and 4 are among the most harrowing in the book. They narrate the manuscript’s transfer throughout Cilicia over four centuries as the churches and monasteries that housed it fell victim to conquest and war, from Hromkla to Zeytun and eventually to Marash. It was in Zeytun that the Gospels resided the longest, from the sixteenth century to 1915. In the manuscript’s time in Zeytun, it continued to exercise its power: having survived fire and conquest, it served the people of Zeytun as a protective talisman, as a ritual object, one that derived its influence from the fact that it was almost never displayed to the public except on rare ceremonial occasions, when it was held high up as an object to be revered. For centuries its presence blessed and protected the people of Zeytun.
The manuscript could not, however, prevent the genocide, which came to Zeytun as it came to the rest of the Armenian community, dispossessing and eventually exterminating some 1.5 million Armenians. It made its way to Marash during the genocide’s forced expulsions, and it was there that the manuscript was sundered, the Canon Tables taken by the Atamian family to the United States and the mother manuscript making a journey, through many hands, to Yerevan. The second half of Watenpaugh’s book traces the postgenocide history of the manuscript as a survivor object, which, like the people who carried it, bore the scars of tragedy. From Aleppo (chapter 5) to New York (chapter 6) to Yerevan (chapter 7) and finally to Los Angeles (chapter 8), Watenpaugh creates a vivid picture of the multiple kinds of value the manuscript continued to create and with it tells the story of the multiplicity of the Armenian people themselves, now living in diaspora from Syria to America or in their newly created homeland in Armenia. Throughout its journey, the manuscript serves as holy book, as art historical object, as a key marker of Soviet-era national identity, and as coveted object on the international art market. Watenpaugh’s nuanced mapping of the transformation of a communal, liturgical object into an art object in chapters 6 and 8, the commodification of the sacred, is itself one of the great contributions of this multilayered book.
In The Missing Pages, Watenpaugh demonstrates that “the story that the . . . Zeytun Gospels tells matches the modern history of the Armenians” (26). Attending with rigor to the historical details of the manuscript’s passage from its place of creation in southeast Anatolia in the thirteenth century to its cleaving in two during the Armenian Genocide to the now-fragmented book’s eventual dual resting places in Los Angeles and Yerevan, Watenpaugh crafts that rarest of works: a rigorously researched yet vividly moving narrative of page-turning intensity that will appeal to both scholars and the public.
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin