Photographs / Research

Discovering connections between collections: Sirarpie Der Nersessian’s contributions to ICFA’s Illuminated Manuscripts Photograph Collection

Written by Anne-Marie Viola, Metadata and Cataloging Specialist

Since processing this tiny, two-box collection last year, I keep coming back to my subject, Professor Sirarpie Der Nersessian, to explore the web of relationships that she maintained in a life that blurred the personal and professional – as was typical of faculty in the early days of Dumbarton Oaks.  Her correspondence (“Correspondence regarding research and appointments at Dumbarton Oaks,” MS.BZ.005-01-002), a slim file of less than six dozen letters spanning the years of 1944-1966, has provided interesting fodder for the curious archivist. In giving it a closer read, I have gained a greater sense of the woman and scholar behind the papers, as well as the network of scholars involved in the emerging field of manuscript studies in the mid-twentieth century.

Der Nersessian was hired as Dumbarton Oaks’ Professor of Byzantine Art and Archaeology in 1946, following her fellowship year (1944-1945), a position she would hold in residence for nearly two decades. Prior to the appointment, she spent over a dozen years at Wellesley College where she was both director of the university’s art museum and professor of art history. In fact, Der Nersessian taught the first courses in Byzantine art at a woman’s college. She had been recommended for the position by America’s leading Byzantinists, Charles Rufus Morey, Walter Cook, and Albert M. Friend, with whom she had forged relationships while working on her dissertation at the École pratique des Hautes Études at the University of Paris, and as an assistant to Gabriel Millet in his photograph collection of Byzantine monuments  – “at that time…the most important international resource for scholars of Byzantine art” (Allen, 332).

Professor Gabriel Millet (center) with his students at the École des Hautes Études (Der Nersessian seated immediately to Millet's left).

Professor Gabriel Millet (center) with his students at the École des Hautes Études (Der Nersessian seated to Millet’s left).

A scholar of Armenian manuscript illumination, Der Nersessian seemed to have well understood the critical role that photograph collections play in art historical research. She is credited in Nina Garsoian’s biographical essay in Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline with having “sought to expand the department’s slide collection” during her tenure at Wellesley (Garsoian, 292). I wondered what contributions she might have made to ICFA’s holdings.

Illuminated Manuscripts, Box 16, Folder 22: Jerusalem: Armenian

Typical illuminations in Armenian manuscripts included evangelist portraits like this one of John (left) and of biblical scenes like the Baptism (right).

It was while processing her correspondence file that I found clear evidence of such a contribution. In a missive Der Nersessian penned in June 1950 to the then-director of Byzantine Studies, Albert “Bert” Friend, she outlined her decision to focus on Armenian art and how she planned to pursue her research. The first task was to develop “a photograph collection of Armenian illuminated manuscripts.”

Sirarpie Der Nersessian Papers and Photographs

Further in the letter, she proposed a sabbatical abroad for the academic year 1951-1952, to include visits to libraries in Venice, Vienna, Jerusalem, Aleppo, and Antilias in order to catalog, photograph, and study the collections at each site. Der Nersessian noted that her “sister, who has already helped me with the Chester Beatty manuscripts, could assist me again.” Der Nersessian’s sister, Arax Iskouhi Der Nersessian, is believed to have been widowed while living in Paris during World War II, after which she migrated to the United States to live with her sister at Dumbarton Oaks and serve as her research assistant.

Sirarpie Der Nersessian (seated right) with her sister Arax Der Nersessian at their home at Dumbarton Oaks.

Sirarpie Der Nersessian (seated right) with her sister Arax Der Nersessian at their home at Dumbarton Oaks.

Although the correspondence file lacks any letters from the time period of this proposed trip, other documentation confirms that Der Nersessian achieved her mission. In a 1956 account of her work filed in “Annual Project Reports” (MS.BZ.005-01-03) she writes:

“It was principally in order to collect the necessary material that I spent the academic year of 1951-1952 studying the manuscripts of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem and important collections at Aleppo, Antilias (near Beirut), and Constantinople…”

“We brought back approximately 2500 photographs, which have all been identified and catalogued…These should be made available in some form or other to the art historians.”

Sirarpie Der Nersessian Papers and Photographs

Further evidence that she did so with the help of her sister is supplied in an April 1965 handwritten response to then-director John “Jack” Thacher’s invitation to attend Dumbarton Oaks’ 25th anniversary celebration. Der Nersessian added, “I do not know whether you remember that before leaving D.O. I had asked to have prints of all the photographs made by Arax of Jerusalem, Syria and Constantinople, since I had turned over to D.O. the only copies I had.”


It was these letters along with a recent survey of the negatives in our cold storage undertaken by our departmental assistant, Jessica Cebra, which prompted our review of ICFA’s photographic holdings of illuminated manuscripts, including the Illuminated Manuscript Photographs Collection (PH.BZ.005). By our count, there are over 2,400 negatives of 200-plus Armenian manuscripts, the majority of which are of manuscripts from the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem (1,920), followed by Aleppo (164), and other various sites (170).

ICFA’s paper accession logs provide even more conclusive evidence. Multiple entries list Der Nersessian as the person for whom images were purchased or as a donor. But a 1953 entry records ICFA’s purchase of 2,250 images of Armenian manuscripts from Der Nersessian, just a year after the sisters’ trip.

ICFA accession log page 4 with 1953 acquisitions

A close read of the correspondence in this collection and in our curatorial files, as well as ongoing dialogue between staff, led to our discovery of the provenance of these photographic holdings, as well as a better understanding of the scholarship Dumbarton Oaks facilitated in its early years. Stay tuned to find out what else we learned about Professor Der Nersessian when I followed up on another lead from the curatorial files!

Note: This post excerpts the research that I presented at the 2013 Byzantine Studies Conference in a paper entitled, “Assembling a Corpus of Armenian Illuminated Manuscript Images: Sirarpie Der Nersessian’s Contributions to the ICFA Photograph Collections”. Paper and presentation available upon request.

Biographical resources cited:

  • Allen, Jelisaveta Stanojevich. “Sirarpie Der Nersessian (b. 1896): Educator and Scholar in Byzantine and Armenian Art” Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820-1979. Ed. Claire Richter Sherman. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981. Ch. 12. : 329-356.
  • Garsoian, Nina G. “Sirarpie Der Nersessian (1896-1989).” Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline. Volume 3: Philosophy and the Arts. Ed. Helen Damico. New York, New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. P. 287-305.



One thought on “Discovering connections between collections: Sirarpie Der Nersessian’s contributions to ICFA’s Illuminated Manuscripts Photograph Collection

  1. Pingback: Sirarpie Der Nersessian and the Sinai Photography Project | icfa

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