THE MISSING PAGES
The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice
In 2010, the world’s wealthiest art institution, the J. Paul Getty Museum, found itself confronted by a century-old genocide. The Armenian Church was suing for the return of eight pages from the Zeytun Gospels, a manuscript illuminated by the greatest medieval Armenian artist, Toros Roslin. Protected for centuries in a remote church, the holy manuscript had followed the waves of displaced people exterminated during the Armenian genocide. Passed from hand to hand, caught in the confusion and brutality of the First World War, it was cleaved in two. Decades later, the manuscript found its way to the Republic of Armenia,
In 2010, the world’s wealthiest art institution, the J. Paul Getty Museum, found itself confronted by a century-old genocide. The Armenian Church was suing for the return of eight pages from the Zeytun Gospels, a manuscript illuminated by the greatest medieval Armenian artist, Toros Roslin. Protected for centuries in a remote church, the holy manuscript had followed the waves of displaced people exterminated during the Armenian genocide. Passed from hand to hand, caught in the confusion and brutality of the First World War, it was cleaved in two. Decades later, the manuscript found its way to the Republic of Armenia, while its missing eight pages came to the Getty.
The Missing Pages is the biography of a manuscript that is at once art, sacred object, and cultural heritage. Its tale mirrors the story of its scattered community as Armenians have struggled to redefine themselves after genocide and in the absence of a homeland. Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh follows in the manuscript’s footsteps through seven centuries, from medieval Armenia to the killing fields of 1915 Anatolia, the refugee camps of Aleppo, Ellis Island, and Soviet Armenia, and ultimately to a Los Angeles courtroom.
Reconstructing the path of the pages, Watenpaugh uncovers the rich tapestry of an extraordinary artwork and the people touched by it. At once a story of genocide and survival, of unimaginable loss and resilience, The Missing Pages captures the human costs of war and persuasively makes the case for a human right to art.
- Stanford University Press
- February 2019
- 436 Pages
“What makes The Missing Pages truly remarkable is her gift of storytelling. This is a book with the soul of language—moving, affirming, illuminating.” —Mark Arax, author of The Dreamt Land: Chasing Dust and Water Across California
1. Before you read The Missing Pages, were you familiar with illuminated manuscripts? What did you learn about this form of art? What did you learn about Toros Roslin, the miniaturist who worked on the Zeytun Gospels?
2. How does the separation of the Canon Tables from its mother manuscript, the Zeytun Gospels, mirror or symbolize the history of the Armenian people?
3. The lawsuit against the J. Paul Getty Museum incited a dispute on who has rightful ownership to the Canon Tables, which have tremendous artistic and historical importance. What are your thoughts on which group should own the Canon Tables? Can you think of other examples in history that have spurred discussion on the issue of rightful ownership?
4. Material objects can hold cultural and religious importance to its owners, especially for survivors of war and genocide. Do you or your family have any significant objects that would be difficult to part with if they were lost, stolen, or destroyed?
5. The author tells the biography of the Zeytun Gospels via its global travels throughout history. Which geographical stop of the manuscript’s journey did you find the most intriguing, and why?
6. Discuss the importance of the lawsuit taking place in Los Angeles, and the response of the Armenian community to the settlement.
7. How will the five-year-long lawsuit involving the Canon Tables, and the settlement reached by both parties, help shape the history of the Armenian genocide?
8. Exhibitions at renowned art museums like the Getty Museum tell innovative stories about its objects on display, communicating scholarly research to the public. Has reading The Missing Pages influenced the way you will observe art and historical objects at museums in the future?
The attorney watched as the clerk at the Los Angeles County Superior Court stamped the date on his lawsuit.
June 1, 2010. He filed it under the wire, just before the statute of limitations ran out. The lawsuit accused the world’s wealthiest art institution, the J. Paul Getty Museum, of holding a sacred object vandalized and plundered during the Armenian Genocide. The plaintiff was a midsized faith group, the Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. The suit demanded the return of the Canon Tables, a fragment from a medieval Gospels, along with over a hundred million dollars in damages.1
The news media soon took hold of the story. The Getty Museum and its parent institution, the J. Paul Getty Trust, made well-chosen targets. Rich, powerful, and glamorous, they nevertheless carried a long and vexed history of buying looted antiquities, getting drawn into dramatic legal battles, and being forced to return artifacts to their rightful owners. The art press took note of a new kind of claimant in the crowded field of litigants seeking restitution: survivors of the Armenian Genocide and their heirs. The case recalled the better-known examples of art looted during the Holocaust, and the tenacious survivors and heroic attorneys who had fought against the odds to win back priceless objects pilfered long ago under the cover of genocide and sequestered in the pristine halls of affluent museums.
The suit avowed that the Canon Tables had been stolen, surreptitiously removed from the manuscript known as the Zeytun Gospels, as a result of the Armenian Genocide. The museum’s legal counsel responded by claiming that the Getty owned the pages as works of art, having acquired them legally, and that the suit should be dismissed without merit. The Church asserted that the Getty knew or should have known it was acquiring purloined goods. The Getty maintained that the Canon Tables had been in the United States for more than ninety years without anyone questioning its legal status.
The complaint made for absorbing reading. In a few pages it attempted to reconstruct the chain of events that had brought the Canon Tables to Los Angeles. Copied and illuminated in 1256, the manuscript had been kept in a church in Zeytun, a rugged town in the Taurus Mountains, as a revered relic and liturgical object. But the manuscript had its own agency as well, protecting the town and its people and accomplishing miracles among the congregants over the centuries. Fast-forward to the spring of 1915. As World War I engulfed the world, the Ottoman Empire initiated the exile and extermination of its own Armenian population in what is now known as the Armenian Genocide. When the inhabitants of Zeytun were cast out of their homes and set upon exile where most of them would perish, the Zeytun Gospels too was taken out of its church. It passed from hand to hand. During and after the genocide, the Zeytun Gospels intersected with the lives of individuals who venerated it, coveted it, treasured it, saved it, lost it, feared it, entrusted it to others, remembered it, and wrote about it. Decades later, when the Zeytun Gospels ended up in the Mesrob Mashtots Institute for Ancient Manuscripts (known as the Matenadaran) in the Republic of Armenia, its Canon Tables was absent. These missing pages, removed from the manuscript, had made their separate way to the United States in the possession of an Armenian family. The Getty Museum purchased the Canon Tables from the family in 1994.
At the center of the legal battle, competing arguments, and splashy news stories, the enigmatic Canon Tables stood still. Originally, the pages had appeared at the beginning of the manuscript where they functioned as index tables of sorts, listing passages that narrate the same events in different Gospels. The illuminator, Toros Roslin, turned these eight pages into visual feasts of calligraphy, abstract ornament, and dynamic images observed from nature, including birds, fish, trees, and fruit. He set them in architectural frames highlighted in gold and vivid jewel-like colors. For centuries the artist’s name was virtually unknown. Yet by the time the Canon Tables entered the Getty collection, art historians had recognized Roslin as one of the greatest artists of medieval Armenian art. The sacred relic had become a work of art of inestimable value.
The lawsuit struck a chord with Armenian Americans. It reminded them of the immense losses the genocide had inflicted, not only on their families but also on their culture. Now the eight glittering pages at the Getty Museum became a symbol of the uncounted manuscripts, liturgical objects, carpets, statues, paintings, and heirlooms that had been destroyed, lost, or stolen. Armenians have long mourned the destruction and theft of their art. A people almost erased from history, they still endure the denial of the crime of genocide by its perpetrators and their successors. Many despaired of ever seeing justice or restitution. The lawsuit in Los Angeles raised a tantalizing possibility. The lead attorney for the Church, Vartkes Yeghiayan, had previously prevailed in litigation with insurance companies that had sold policies to Armenians, then refused to pay out after the policyholders were murdered in the genocide. Could he prevail again? He presented the suit that demanded the return of the fragment separated from its mother manuscript as a quest to rejoin family members sundered by the genocide: “What we are doing is reuniting the orphans with their family,” he said.2 The Church spokesperson stated, “The time has come for the Armenian nation to demand the return of its historical-cultural heritage, lost during the Genocide. . . . This is about our people reclaiming their rights.”3 Something about this case and its timing resonated in the community, especially in California, even as debate swirled around its specifics.
The lawsuit also struck a chord with me. As an art historian, I have spent a good deal of my life in museums and know firsthand the positive impact on art history of a well-conserved collection, thoughtfully curated exhibitions, institutional archives, and research support. I was familiar with the Getty Museum, having visited it many times when I lived in Los Angeles. The Getty Trust had awarded me a postdoctoral fellowship in the History of Art in 2004 for an unrelated research project. Like many art historians, I was also well versed in critiques of museums, the way they turned archaeological objects and religious implements into works of art through the agency of display and the power of curation, and their long history of unscrupulous methods of acquisition. In my own research I had investigated the historiography of cultural heritage and colonial practices of preservation and destruction. Who owns, or should own, an object like the Canon Tables, and how is that determined? What would it mean for art history to be played out in the courts? The issues spoke to the art historian in me, but the story of the Zeytun Gospels also felt very personal.
Within a few weeks of the lawsuit’s filing, I published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.4 The lawsuit focused on the matter of rightful ownership, of good title. But one could spot other issues between the lines of legal writing. Here was a fragment of a sacred object of great power that was now in a museum, where it was treated as a work of art. I recognized the object’s religious aura, yet as an art historian I wanted Roslin’s illuminated pages to be accessible to the largest possible public to view, learn, enjoy, and even pray to. As a rare surviving example of medieval Armenian art, the Canon Tables has tremendous artistic and historical importance. I argued that the dispute should be an opportunity for a creative solution that balanced the claims and goals of both sides, as well as the general public. Art professionals had long sought outside-the-box solutions to restitution conflicts. In the 1990s, when Byzantine frescoes looted from a church in northern Cyprus appeared on the market, American philanthropist Dominique de Menil reached an agreement with the Orthodox Church of Cyprus to purchase and restore the fragments. The church owned the wall paintings but authorized their display as the centerpiece of the Menil Collection’s Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston. At once reliquary, museum, and church, it was an extraordinary space where the art value and religious value of the paintings coexisted in a deeply moving and thought-provoking presentation.5
I argued that a similar approach could work for the Canon Tables in Los Angeles. The Armenian Church and the Getty Museum could cooperate in creating an innovative space where the pages could recover some of their spiritual function, yet remain available for the study and enjoyment of the largest number of museum visitors and scholars. The Canon Tables could function simultaneously as works of art and as religious objects.
The tragic story of the mutilated manuscript should not be silenced but rather incorporated into the exhibition. The Canon Tables’ continuing separation from the rest of the Zeytun Gospels mirrors the dispossession and dispersal of the Armenians themselves. Indeed, keeping the pages in this manner in Los Angeles would be particularly apt, as it is home to the second-largest Armenian community outside of Armenia—most of them descendants of survivors of the genocide.
An op-ed is not like the academic articles I normally publish. It prompts immediate reactions, both encouraging and disconcerting. Some of my art historian colleagues expressed dismay that I would intervene in a legal matter involving a museum. They seemed to think that academics should be seen and not heard when it comes to controversies surrounding art: we ought to research and interpret art yet somehow not delve into issues of the art market, provenance, theft, or atrocity that are part of the biography of many works of art. Some in the Armenian community objected that as an Armenian woman I expressed an opinion that did not align exactly with the Church’s claim. Others insinuated that I was out to curry favors from the Getty. That stung a bit. Clearly, communicating about a subject as complex and as sensitive as this was no easy feat. Yet the Canon Tables kept drawing me in.
The op-ed also opened up new horizons. I heard from anthropologists, historians, and attorneys who educated me and challenged me. I began to see a broader picture about art in the contemporary court of law. I attended conferences about art restitution and cultural heritage litigation; I listened to cultural activists and critics. Closer to home, family members and friends, the very ones who considered my usual research arcane, took an interest in the case and offered strong opinions.
Most of all, I kept thinking about the Canon Tables. I pictured the Zeytun Gospels as a complete manuscript. Priests and congregants, hymns and prayers, and the gentle smoke of incense burners encircled the holy object in its special relic box, far above the ravine in the mountain stronghold of Zeytun. I returned to Los Angeles to look at the Canon Tables. I scrutinized archival photographs, zooming in on details. I reexamined everything I knew about Zeytun, Roslin, medieval art, the Armenian Genocide, the destruction of cultural heritage, the liturgy of the Armenian Church, and art-related litigation. The court filings in the Canon Tables case offered a tantalizing look into the life of an Armenian manuscript caught in the vagaries of war, genocide, exile, and the art market. This was the kind of history of art that art history rarely addressed head-on. Yet it also prompted questions. What functions did the manuscript fulfill in the religious life of Zeytun? Was it possible to reconstruct each and every step of the journey the mother manuscript and the Canon Tables had embarked on? Which individuals had come into contact with the holy pages, and how had the pages changed them? Who exactly was Roslin, and how did he rise from obscurity to become the acclaimed master of medieval Armenian art? How does the saga of the Canon Tables shed light on Armenian cultural heritage and the genocide? The Zeytun Gospels was exerting the same strong pull on me as it had on so many others before.