Photographs / Research

Sirarpie Der Nersessian and the Sinai Photography Project

Written by Anne-Marie Viola, Metadata and Cataloging Specialist

In further exploring the connections between former Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Art and Archaeology Professor Sirarpie Der Nersessian and the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives’ illuminated manuscript photograph collection (described in my previous post), I followed a lead from our curatorial files that took me to the Library of Congress last fall. There, I met with the librarian of the Armenian and Georgian collection, Levon Avdoyan, and consulted the Dadian papers, before proceeding to the Manuscript Division to consult the Central File series. It was a fruitful trip, which provided additional background on a series of photographs in ICFA’s holdings and helped paint a fuller picture of Der Nersessian, one of the most prominent Armeno-Byzantine art historians of her time.

Selections of miniatures from the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, photographed by the Library of Congress "Sinai Photography Project" and available in ICFA's Illuminated Manuscript Photographs collection (PH.BZ.005)

Selections of miniatures from the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, photographed by the Library of Congress “Sinai Photography Project” and available in ICFA’s Illuminated Manuscript Photographs collection (PH.BZ.005)

In 1951-1952, Der Nersessian took a sabbatical year to travel to Jerusalem and study the unpublished illuminated manuscripts of the Armenian Patriarchate. Although this trip is well-documented in the many biographical essays I read, I’ve yet to come across any description of what preceded it. As noted in my last post, Der Nersessian was determined to develop a comprehensive collection of photographs of Armenian illuminated manuscripts. On the verso of the same June 6, 1950 letter in which she sets this goal, she references the Sinai Photography Project. Upon further investigation, I learned that this was a Library of Congress initiative, undertaken in collaboration with the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in 1949-1950. The project’s goal was to document the illuminated manuscript collections of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai peninsula, along with the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Patriarchates in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, Der Nersessian served as an advisor to the project. The resulting publication, Checklist of Manuscripts in the Libraries of the Greek and Armenian Patriarchates in Jerusalem, microfilmed for the Library of Congress, 1949-50, provides a detailed description of the project, including an acknowledgment of Der Nersessian’s subsequent sabbatical.

We had no catalog to guide us, but had received lists of requests for selected MSS. [IX]

Delving into ICFA’s curatorial files, in a folder innocuously labeled “Photograph Coll. – Acc. Records, Miscellaneous,” we found a small divider with the note, “Correspondence re Microfilms: Miss Der Nersessian, 1950-1957” followed by a May 1949 list of photographs “JERUSALEM” for “Miss D.N.” that were “to be supplied through Professor Kraeling.” Further documentation indicates that Dr. Carl Kraeling was president of the ASOR, primary liaison with the Library of Congress, and affiliated with both the University of Chicago and Yale University.

Sirarpie Der Nersessian Papers and Photographs

I also found a small note originally attached to the list, which referenced an order placed with “Professor Clark, American School of Oriental Research” and letters between Clark and Der Nersessian dated from the spring of 1950. In addition to being general editor and project director of the Sinai Photography Project operating out of the ASOR in Jerusalem, Dr. Kenneth W. Clark was Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Duke University.

A letter dated April 12, 1950 from “Kenneth W. Clark, Editor in Chief, Sinai Photography Project” to Der Nersessian references the project at the Armenian Patriarchate and the completion of Der Nersessian’s “list of requests.”  He attributes their success in accessing the “chief prize” “for which I had to fight long and hard”– the gospel manuscript of Queen Keran – to “the influence of your name.”

Images of a canon table (L) and the cover (R) from the Gospel of Queen Keran (MS.2563), dated 1272 AD

Images of a canon table (L) and the cover (R) from the Gospel of Queen Keran (MS.2563), dated 1272 AD

These tantalizing leads prompted my visit to the Library of Congress last fall. During my brief meeting with the Levon Avdoyan, the librarian of the Armenian and Georgian collection in the Near East section, I learned that Der Nersessian also played an advisory role on the Committee for the Armenian Collection of the Library of Congress 1948-1951. Then, I proceeded over the Manuscript Division to consult Box 1055, “Jerusalem, microfilms, 1949-1954,” in the Central File series. I found what appeared to be a nearly identical version of the list in ICFA’s files, which included a small handwritten noted along the top, “Supplied by S. der Nersessian,” along with a bevy of correspondence between Clark, Kraeling, and Library of Congress staff.

In a June 18, 1949 letter to Verner Clapp, chief assistant librarian of the Library of Congress, Kraeling explains that he has assembled “the information necessary to visualize the scope of the undertaking,” including amongst others a “list prepared by Professor Der Nersessian representing miniatures in Armenian manuscripts desired by Dumbarton Oaks for her work in Byzantine art.” He goes on to list the various repositories, estimate the number of pages, exposures, and miniatures, and identify staff and resources.

Subsequent correspondence from Clark to Kraeling that winter indicates that the project included two separate methods of documentation of miniatures (microfilming and photography), and that at the Armenian Patriarchate the team anticipated “only 25 manuscripts but about 400 miniatures – the emphasis there must be upon the miniatures…” (December 5, 1949). An earlier letter that fall from Kraeling to Clapp had estimated the number of miniatures at 275, but clearly noted, “the number of the 4 x 5 negatives of illustrations in codices cannot be firmly established for in many instances our American scholars at Princeton and Dumbarton Oaks can only specify “numerous miniatures” or “several miniatures,” this being all that the catalogue of Papadopulos-Kerameus indicates” (October 15, 1949).

Upon conclusion of their work at the Patriarchate, Clark sent a summary of his work to Kraeling, who passed it along to Chief Librarian at the Library of Congress Luther Evans,

At the Armenian Patriarchate we did experience certain unfortunate limitations, the 4 x 5 film was limited because Wade brought only 1000 sheets. We had kept 350 for this job, but had no good estimate of its size. Wade added some from his personal supply and we finally took 424 pictures. But considerable numbers we had to omit relying on the microfilm to supply. The original list of MSS numbered 25. Three of these were never found, including the King Hethum II Gospels. I selected ten additional MSS to do on microfilm, so we finally go 32 MSS averaging 375 folios (12,000 frames). This makes the total for Jerusalem, from Nov. 14 to Dec. 24, 186 MSS (50,000 microfilm frames and 1077 4 x 5’s). (December 28, 1950)

This matches what Clark later communicates to Der Nersessian in the earlier referenced April 1950 letter: “Your list of requirements was completed with some exceptions and limitations… The richness of this collection exceeded our supply of 4 x 5 film, so that some selection had to be made while relying upon the complete microfilm to supplement the 4 x 5 selections…” He adds that “…there are no plans for further work at the Armenian Patriarchate” although “many more miniatures should be done on 4 x 5 film” and encourages DNS to seek permission.”

In her subsequent correspondence that spring, Der Nersessian communicated both her appreciation of the project’s findings along with a desire for further documentation. On May 24, 1950, she wrote to Kraeling to say,

I am preparing an additional list of Armenian manuscripts which I should like to submit to you in case work can be resumed this summer. I have written to Prof. Clark thanking him and I want to thank you also, very specially. The photographs already made have been most useful and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have this valuable material.


Then, shortly after learning that the Library of Congress had approved the project to continue at Jersusalem, Der Nersessian wrote to Clark stating:

When I last wrote to you, I had seen the prints of the 4×5 photographs and only some of the microfilms. I have now seen them all and I am more than ever endebted [sic] to you for adding several important manuscripts to my list. I am handicapped by the lack of a proper catalogue for the only one published so far lists only about 150 and these can be supplemented only to a certain degree by studies or references in Armenian publications. Several of the MS you microfilmed were entirely unknown to me and provided me with very interesting material. (May 31, 1950)


With this, she enclosed a list of 22 additional manuscripts and a half-dozen Gospels for which she lacked manuscript numbers. However, none of these were included in the Librart of Congress’ subsequent publication, and of this list just under half appear in ICFA’s collection, each with “Dumbarton Oaks” listed as the source. Did the ASOR/LOC team make it back to the Patriarchate, or was their failure to gain authorization the impetus for the Der Nersessian sisters’ trip the following year?

Either way, later that summer, Dumbarton Oaks’ order with the Library of Congress was filled, according to an August 8, 1950 office memorandum from the Library’s Photoduplication Service. This large photo order included: “1800 positive feet of microfilm” and “1077 4 x 5 prints from photographic miniatures” from Jerusalem, along with 904 4 x 5 prints from Mt. Sinai.

Thanks to Der Nersessian’s efforts, scholars may now consult these prints in ICFA as part of our Illuminated Manuscript Photographs Collection (PDF inventory available). The microfilms are available through the library and are in the process of being cataloged as part of the Manuscripts on Microfilm Database project.

Stay tuned for more on Der Nersessian’s scholarly network and my recent field trip to Baltimore to explore her lifelong collegiality with Dorothy Miner, manuscripts curator of the Walters Art Museum.


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