Abstract: Sacred Art from the Armenian Orthodox Churches of Istanbul


The history of a people can be documented by the physical objects they produce and use in daily life and ritual. Things are important, if not essential, items of human material culture. As such they embody social values, define moral and ethical principles as well as illustrate artistic achievement. An examination of the artisanship employed in manufacture of things is also important in understanding the material culture of a people. The collection of objects in the Armenian Orthodox churches of Istanbul support both views - the interconnection between material culture, artisanship, and communal belief. Featuring high levels of artistic and technical sophistication, objects of faith were commissioned by church members as personal and communal expressions glorifying God.  

Making objects for the Church was a pious act and each item produced and donated was considered a personal statement of faith. Such objects transcended the world of physical matter.  Family prestige and social standing in the community were also enriched by the donation of precious objects. Contributions from one’s own hand and of oneself instilled within the maker a sense of personal fulfillment and involvement in the spiritual life of the community, a deep attachment to Armenian secular and religious values, and finally adherence to Christian beliefs in an otherwise Muslim world. In this manner the objects produced by the community became symbols of faith and dedication to Christian religious culture.

Like many collections, the Armenian Orthodox Church treasuries in Istanbul contain objects that were never meant to be displayed in a museum or appear in a book. Their primary purpose was to serve, honor, and glorify God. Acquired over many centuries, such objects were more than metal, stone, wood, and definitely more than complicated composition and elaborate iconography. They were a physical testament to religious belief that symbolized the intense spiritual convictions of the lay community.

The objects under study – those that make up a corpus of previously unstudied and unknown artifacts - are a physical reminder and tribute to a people who tenaciously maintained a national identity through the objects they produced, donated, and used in the celebration of their faith. They defined a unique style of religious art, the “Constantinople Style” that reflected the opulence and grandeur of a city many Armenians came to love as their own. Through their labor the city and the Church prospered and, in time, the community became one of the most important ethnic groups in Istanbul.

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