Armenia Sacra
Rapti: The Armenian culture has always developed between conflicted forces…

Hello, I'm Sarah Elzas. Welcome to Culture in France- which today is about Armenia, and an exhibit that opened at the Louvre in Paris at the end of February called Armenia Sacra. Armenia is a former soviet country in the caucuses. It's a small country, squeezed in between Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The culture is born of conflict

Rapti: At the beginning it was between Romans and Seleucids. And later it was between Byzantines and the Arabs. And then the Turks came, the Seljuks. And then the Mongols. Later on they have been squeezed between Ottomans and the Persians

Ioana Rapti is a curator of the Armenia Sacra exhibit, which shows over 200 pieces of religious art and artifacts. She explains that the Christian religion was central to Armenian identity

Rapti: Armenians were the first to embrace Christian religion as a state religion… it was the very beginning of the 4th century

Christianity became official when King Tiridat IV converted. His conversion story is told as a myth-- and like any good myth, it includes wild animals, virgin sacrifices and a trusty advisor. It goes like this: a group of 40 virgins from Rome came to Armenia, seeking refuge. They were being persecuted for preaching Christianity in Rome. And because one of them, Hripsime, refused to marry the Roman emperor. When the Armenian King Tiridat sees her, he also wants to marry her. But he's rejected, so he kills all 40 of them. Because of this crime, God turns him into a wild boar.

Rapti: He recovered his human figure when he took out from the prison his servant Gregory, who became Saint Gregory the Illuminator of the Armenians.

Ioana Rapti is Greek, and studies Byzantine art, particularly illuminated manuscripts. She says this exhibit is a way to show the role Armenia played in the Mediterranean in the middle ages—it was very much a crossroads of cultures

Rapti: Let me show you my favorite object, my favorite manuscript

Rapti brings me over to a 13th century illuminated prayer book. It was commissioned by crown Prince Hettum, during a period of peace and prosperity- when Armenia had allied with Mongolia. The book is opened to a richly decorated page of red, blue and green, with the head of Christ in the center:

Rapti: The Christ Emmanuel is in a medallion. He's set here in a very specific decoration with lions, which is clearly Chinese looking lions. And such motifs were introduced to Armenia through silks, which the Mongols offered to the Armenian kings

Sarah: Where are we going now?
Rapti: We are going to the first part of the exhibition, the secret corridor with the Khatchkars.

We started our visit backwards. The secret corridor she's talking about is the Louvre's medieval foundations. You walk by these old walls on wooden pathways. And for the exhibit, the paths are lined with vertical stone tablets of different sizes, all carved with a cross. These are Khatchkars.

Rapti: The word Khatchkar means stone cross. Khatch is the cross and kar is the stone. The Khatchkars are commemorative or funerary steles. And they're always set vertically, close to the churches, in the cemeteries or they stand free in the nature, and so for the exhibit it was possible to bring something of the Armenian landscape to the museum

Set against the medieval stone walls, you can almost imagine them in their natural settings. For the exhibit, the Armenian government gathered together a few dozen of them and sent them to France for the exhibit. A couple of them didn't make it out of Armenia:

Rapti: The snow came early this year, and they are in a very remote place…. In the forest it was very difficult to take them out

Through funeral stones, prayer books and ornamented reliquaries, it's possible to get a sense of how medieval Armenians lived and prayed. The exhibit, Armenia Sacra, is the centerpiece exhibit of the Year of Armenia in France. It runs through May at the Louvre. With Culture in France, I'm Sarah Elzas.

This piece aired March 3, 2007 on Radio France International.

Producer: Sarah Elzas
Recorded in Paris, France