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An Armenian Ekphrasis on a Late Tenth-Century Byzantine Reliquary of the True Cross

Ioanna Rapti, Centre d'Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, Paris, Summer Fellow 2011

The focus of this project is a late tenth-century panegyric composed by the famous Armenian poet, Gregory of Narek, to celebrate both the gift of an imperial reliquary to the monastery of Aparank in the area of Lake Van and the new church built to house it. Never translated into any western language, the text conceals much evidence for Byzantine policy in the East, Byzantine art, and Armenian architecture. During the fellowship, I translated the major part of the text and analyzed its structure and vocabulary, establishing the outline of a potential publication. The main features that emerged are:

  1. Literary hybridism, based on rhetoric and poetry, borrowing from historiography and indebted to Byzantine ekphrasis.
  2. Gift-exchange and diplomacy during the critical period (979–983) after the defeat of Bardas Skleros. The donation was orchestrated by a former supporter of the rebel while the latter was still a serious threat. More than a testimony to the loyalty of the repentant rebel, the reliquary brought imperial authority to the homeland of the former rebel with weighty symbolism.
  3. Praise and propaganda: Gregory’s praise of the co-emperors stresses their concordia and joint policy challenging the traditional distinction between the warrior and the administrator. Given the circumstances of the gift, the panegyric—addressed among others to three Armenian kings targeted by Byzantine expansion—becomes particularly meaningful.
  4. Poetry and materiality: Gregory’s ekphrasis leads the senses of his audience to perception of the reliquary and to the liturgical space. Through his sophisticated wording, which blends compounds and biblical references in avalanches of metaphors, he conjures a Byzantine staurotheke similar to that of Basil the parakoimomenos now in Limbourg. He also sketches a cross-in-square church with precious furnishing, sparkling within a smooth textile-covered interior enclosed by lush vegetation. His audience must have felt in paradise. Ironically but expectedly, this paradise was soon to be lost. The gift would soon return to the realm of the donor.