The Medieval Review 16.08.26

Maranci, Christina. Vigilant Powers: Three Churches of Early Medieval Armenia . Studies in the Visual Cultures of the Middle Ages, 8. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. 281. $156.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-2-503-54900-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Patricia Blessing
Society of Architectural Historians (2015-16) Pomona College (2016-17)

Christina Maranci's thorough study of three seventh-century Armenian churches proposes a new view on the period of transition at the end of late antiquity. Focusing on the cathedrals of Mren and Zuart'noc', and the church of Ptłni, Maranci provides close readings of the architecture, its decoration, and of the socio-cultural context. In this, the author has to contend with a complex set of primary sources, but also with the limitations imposed by the preservation of the monuments. Indeed, all three buildings are ruined to various degrees. The cathedral of Mren, today located in Turkey and hard to access because of a military zone extending into the area, has suffered significant damage over the past few decades, with large parts of the south facade collapsing as recently as 2008. In this case, effectively, Maranci's study becomes both documentation and plea for restoration, or at the very least consolidation and preservation of this important monument. At Zuart'noc', the situation is different in that the church was destroyed in the tenth century and only parts of the exedra remain standing. Here, the difficulty lies in negotiating the various attempts at reconstructing the elevation, from T'oros T'oramanyan's early work on the site, and up to Armen Kazaryan's recent work on the liturgical space of the church.

In her analysis of these studies and of the church as a whole, Maranci does not propose an ideal elevation, knowing fully well that the evidence it too scarce to draw useful conclusions. Rather, she focuses on the plan of the monument, which allows her to connect it to slightly earlier and contemporary buildings--all so-called aisled tetraconchs--outside of Armenia, from Bosra and Seleucia Piera to Apamea and finally Jerusalem. In the latter city, Maranci first discusses the Anastasis Rotunda, focusing on awareness of the monument in seventh-century Armenia. The author critically discusses the notion of medieval copy, particularly of architecture, based on Richard Krautheimer's 1942 essay and its later critics. Finally, Maranci proposes to move beyond this discussion: ''If the question of whether Zuart'noc' was informed by the Anastasis Rotunda can be answered in the affirmative, other questions remain: why were certain elements selected for imitation, and how they might have been made available? These in turn invite us to consider the problem of the medieval copy, as defined by Krautheimer and developed in subsequent scholarship, and its potential cultural constraints. Finally, I turn from the iconography of architecture to the iconography of building to ask whether news of the destruction and repair of the Holy Sepulcher in the second decade of the seventh century may have played a role in the construction of Zuart'noc''' (136). In what follows, Maranci successfully continues her analysis along this vein, and moves beyond the study of formal parallels and similarities. Particularly important in here is the section on ''The World Stage'' (182ff.), in which Maranci connects Zuart'noc' beyond Armenia and Christian architecture, to the Dome of the Rock. Built in 691, the latter is the earliest extant Islamic monument and hence an icon of medieval architecture in and of itself, as two recent books on the subject by Lawrence Nees and Marcus Milwright amply show. Both studies were published a few months after Maranci's book and hence could not be taken into account, although Maranci discusses part of Nees's argument based on an unpublished paper. In Maranci's account, the Dome of the Rock connects to Zuart'noc' at the level of late antique transitions and frontier zones. Writing about the Dome of the Rock, Zuart'noc', and the Holy Sepulcher in the pages of a single book emphasizes the importance of cross-cultural and cross-regional studies in the Middle Ages. Having visited all three monuments within a short time of each other, this reviewer must underscore the compelling force of the argument.

Throughout her comparative analysis, Maranci does not fall short of the requirements of her own field of Armenian studies in her thorough investigation of primary sources, both chronicles and epigraphy (the latter in Greek and Armenian). This study of the sources allows Maranci to argue for a more precise dating of two of the churches; while Zuart'noc' is securely dated to the tenure of patriarch Nerses III (641-661), the dates of Mren and Ptłni are disputed. In the case of Mren, Maranci focuses on the tenuous Byzantine hold over the Armenian provinces: ''As much as Mren may be seen to visualize the 'high tide' of Byzantium on the frontier, is also expressed opportunities for the local nobility to rise in political, social, and economic power'' (25). This, in many ways, is a theme for the following chapter, in that Maranci's book brings about a close investigation of a Byzantine frontier through the study of Armenian architecture. In Mren, where only parts of the decoration have been preserved and lots elements not always fully documented, Maranci takes on the onerous task of examining the remaining fragments, and correlating them with written sources. In the study of architectural sculpture, Maranci successfully ventures into a wide range of comparison to Armenian and Byzantine churches, but also costume history. Her close investigation leads Maranci to conclude that Mren was likely built between 630 to 640; this accounts for local nobility and their patronage, as well as the presence of iconography relating to Heraclius's recapturing of the Holy Cross from the Sasanians.

In the case of Ptłni, similarly meticulous investigation brings further conclusions on the relationship between imperial and local powers in seventh-century Byzantium. In this specific case, the sculptural decoration carries strong evidence that the site was built as a dynastic memorial for a local prince executed by the Sasanian ruler, and contains strong references to princely pastimes such as hunts and banquets. While Maranci admits that the argument is strongly based on a part of poorly preserved carving, along with the interpretation of spolia, she nevertheless supports her claims with related written sources. This remains the perhaps the weakest link in the book, yet it does not distract from the bigger picture of a dynamic Byzantine frontier that was neither marginal nor provincial. Maranci dates Ptłni in the timespan between 638-640 (the dates Maranci puts forward for Mren) and 670. Thus, Maranci integrates a monument that is far less well known than Mren and Zuart'noc' into her account of the mid-seventh century; effectively, this is an apt move in that it moves away from a masterworks discourse and demonstrates Maranci's awareness of the historiography of her field. This side of Maranci's work is present throughout the volume in the discussion of T'oros T'oramanyan and Josef Stryzgowksi, the protagonists of her first book, as well as in the finely tuned suggestions at possible directions that might be taken. These thoughts are relevant beyond the field of Armenian art, in that other subsets of medieval art history--western, Islamic, Byzantine, Georgian, to name a few--deal with similar questions of balancing source specificity and cultural limitations with the need for comparative study. As a specialist of Islamic architecture, I found Maranci's study well written, profoundly erudite, and a pleasure to read. While the finer points of Armenian epigraphy and sources escape me, it is nevertheless clear that specialists within Maranci's field will find a trove of material for further discussion, in tune with Maranci's arguments.

Copyright (c) 2016 Patricia Blessing

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