Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Relic Armenian Manuscript Pages

The Los Angeles Times reported last month on the Getty Museum's legal battle to retain ownership of eight illuminated pieces of parchment from the 13th-century Zeyt'um Gospels. The Armenian Church claims the pages were stolen during the genocide of 1916 and the Getty does not hold legal title to them.

An interesting feature of this controversy is the debate over the moral issues involved not just in ownership of the pages but also over the ethics of separating a manuscript into multiple parts. On the one hand, the Getty cites common practice:
Elizabeth Morrison, the Getty's acting senior curator of manuscripts, said that "well-regarded … collections around the world" contain individual manuscript sheets. "The Getty in no way condones the practice of taking apart manuscripts, but we continue to collect individual leaves after careful examination proves that they have not recently been removed … with motives of financial gain."
Her argument, then, is that there are legitimate motives for taking books apart. Though not mentioned here, libraries and museums have often disassembled valuable codices in order to display more than two pages at one time. Once disassembled, though, they are more easily sold in pieces, and perhaps more valuable that way. Both for display and for profit, then, codices frequently get treated like bodily relics by socalled "secular" institutions.

On the other side of the argument is the claim that the pages "belong" with the rest of the manuscript.

Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., said that a whole work of art is better than a divided one, and that when a museum has the power to turn a fragmented manuscript into a complete one, it should do so. "It's better from an artistic perspective … it can [then] be studied by scholars as a whole object," said Stewart. . . . Acquiring individual sheets of a manuscript is improper, he said, unless the original work already is so fragmented or scattered that there's little chance it can be made whole. Museums must avoid "contributing to an improper fragmentation of a work. In this instance, it would not be a terribly complex matter to restore the whole."
Stewart invokes the needs of scholars to view a work entire, but also an aesthetic value of the integrity of the work of art. Only then does the article mention specifically religious considerations:
Beyond that, Stewart said, the Getty, which in recent years repatriated more than 40 artifacts to Greece and Italy after evidence showed they had been looted from archaeological sites, should consider that these works are still venerated: "Here's a living, breathing religious community, as opposed to classical antiquities."

This case illustrates clearly the contested values that can swirl around relic texts, especially those that have been partitioned and parceled out, as people are prone to do with relics. We have had the opportunity to observe these processes at work with various kinds of relic texts on this blog (click the label relic at left for more examples).

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