Monday, July 6, 2015

Death of Sirarpie Der Nersessian (July 6, 1989)

Sirarpie Der Nersessian, an art historian, and specialist in Armenian and Byzantine studies, became a pioneer in the field of Armenian art history.

She was born in Constantinople on September 5, 1896, in the family of a businessman. Her maternal uncle was the renowned ecclesiastic and scholar, Archbishop Maghakia Ormanian, who two months later would become Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople (1896-1908). Her mother passed away in 1905, and her father, in 1914). Sirarpie Der Nersessian received her elementary education at the Esayan School, followed by studies at the English High School for Girls (1908-1913). In July 1915, upon the advice of friends, she left for Europe with her maternal aunt and her sister. They initially settled in Geneva, where Der Nersessian studied at the college and the university from 1916-1919.

The Der Nersessian sisters, Araxie (Arax) and Sirarpie, moved to Paris in 1919. Sirarpie Der Nersessian was admitted to the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where she studied under noted Byzantinist Gabriel Millet, and also followed the courses of another Byzantinist, Charles Diehl, and art historian Henri Focillon at the Sorbonne. She graduated in 1926. Encouraged by Millet, in 1927 she extended her field of research to Armenian manuscripts, which were still little known.

Sirarpie Der Nersessian with His Holiness Vazken I during his visit to the United States in 1960.

In 1930 Sirarpie Der Nersessian accepted an offer from Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, to give courses on ancient and medieval art, as well as seminars on Byzantine art. She also became a lecturer of Fine Arts at New York University in 1931. In 1936 she gave a series of fifteen lectures at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, with the subject “Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts.” This was the first course on Armenian art ever given in the United States. At the end of the same year, she defended her two theses to obtain her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne. In 1937 she became chair of the Art Department at Wellesley, and in 1944, the first woman to be invited to Dumbarton Oaks as senior scholar. In 1946 she was named Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology for life at the same institution, as well as member of the School of Art and Sciences at Harvard University, and moved to Washington D.C. She would retire in 1963 and return to Paris, where she lived for the rest of her life. She was the first woman to be decorated with the St. Gregory the Illuminator medal by Catholicos of All Armenians Vazken I in 1960, the year of her first visit to Armenia. In 1965 she was elected corresponding member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, and would also become member of the British Academy (1975) and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1978).

Sirarpie Der Nersessian, a pioneer of Armenian Studies in the United States and an authority on Armenian art during her lifetime and afterwards, passed away on July 6, 1989 in Paris. Her studies of church architecture, illuminated manuscripts, miniatures, and sculpture, included a score of articles and books such as Armenia and the Byzantine Empire (1945), Aght'amar: Church of the Holy Cross (1964), L’art arménien (1965), The Armenians (1969), Armenian Manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery (1973), Byzantine and Armenian Studies (1973), Armenian Miniatures from Isfahan (1986), Miniature Painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century (1993), etcetera.