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Survivor Object: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice

Survivor Object: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice

Toros Roslin, Canon tables from the Zeyt'un Gospels, 1256, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 59, fol. 6r

The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA and the Political Violence in the Modern World cluster course present "Survivor Object: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice," by Professor Heghnar Watenpaugh of the University of California, Davis. Editor and art critic Hrag Vartanian will serve as the discussant for this lecture, followed by Q&A. This event is co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies and the UCLA Working Group in Memory Studies.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022
10:00 AM - 12:00 PM (Pacific Time)

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The intentional destruction of art, especially religious art, is a central element in mass violence and genocide. Claims for the restitution of surviving religious and artistic objects often feature in post-conflict processes of survival or reconciliation. The widespread destruction of cultural heritage is a well-known dimension of the Armenian Genocide, yet it has rarely attracted critical attention. This paper examines the fate of Armenian cultural heritage during and after the Genocide through the Zeytun Gospels, a medieval manuscript that was looted and sundered during the Armenian Genocide.

When a fragment of that work appeared in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, a lawsuit ensued in 2010. By then, art historians had recognized the manuscript’s illuminator, Toros Roslin as the most important artist in the Armenian tradition, turning the sacred relic into a priceless work of art. Today the manuscript survives in two fragments, in Los Angeles and Armenia.

Over the last century, the manuscript interacted with individuals and institutions, and was transformed from a liturgical object, to a monument of national history, to a great work of art, and to a memorial object that symbolizes both violence and resilience. This case embodies the defining elements of art history in the 21st century: the contest over the definition of the object (sacred relic or work of art?), the struggle between communities and powerful institutions for control over cultural patrimony, the human right to culture, the impact of the global art market, and the ways in which objects mediate individual and group identities. The Zeytun Gospels is an example of what I call “survivor objects” – objects that have endured genocide, war, or exile along with their communities, and often play outsize roles in processes of survival, restitution, and commemoration.


Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh is Professor of Art History at the University of California, Davis. She researches the visual cultures of the Middle East. Her first book on the architecture of Aleppo received a book award for urban history from the Society of Architectural Historians. Her second book, The Missing Pages: The Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice (Stanford University Press, 2019), is the only book to win awards from both the Society for Armenian Studies and the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association. It also won the Gold Medal in World History from the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and it was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing (non-fiction). Her research has been supported by fellowships from the J. Paul Getty Trust, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright-Hays, Social Science Research Council, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, and the President of the University of California. Professor Watenpaugh is a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation as well as a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar.


Hrag Vartanian is an editor, art critic, curator, and lecturer on contemporary art with an expertise in the intersection of art and politics. He is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Hyperallergic podcast. His curatorial interests are focused on theories and practices of decolonization, which is informed by his own experience of being part of the post-genocide Armenian diaspora. Since 2017 he has been running an exhibition project that explores the contemporary legacy of Ottoman studio photography. Featuring works by a number of Armenian artists from different generations, this project will be published in a book format in 2022.

Sponsor(s): The Promise Armenian Institute, Center for Near Eastern Studies, Political Violence in the Modern World, UCLA Working Group in Memory Studies