- 1929-2002 (Creation)
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Sirarpie Der Nersessian was born in Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey on September 5, 1896 and died on July 5, 1989. Der Nersessian was the third child in an educated upper-middle-class family that included her parents, an older brother, Boghos, and an older sister, Arax, along with her mother’s siblings. Her uncle, a renowned theologian and church historian, Archbishop Malachia Ormanian, was the Armenian patriarch of the Ottoman Empire from 1896 to 1908 and was a major source of inspiration for Der Nersessian throughout her life.
Orphaned after losing first their mother in 1905 and then their father in 1914, Der Nersessian and her sister left family behind when they fled persecutions against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. They went first to Bulgaria and then across war-torn Europe to Switzerland, where Der Nersessian completed her secondary education and commenced university in 1917. In 1919, soon after the end of the World War I, the sisters moved to Paris, where Der Nersessian pursued graduate degrees at the Sorbonne, studying with the leading Byzantine scholars of the period, the historian Charles Diehl and art historians Gabriel Millet and Henri Focillon. Her lifelong friendships with Byzantine historian Father Francis Dvornik and art historian André Grabar also started during her student years in Paris.
The beginning of Der Nersessian’s academic career coincided with the infancy of the specific field she would come to adopt, the study of Byzantine manuscript illuminations, which she explored in both of the theses she completed for her doctorat ès lettres. In the first, she investigated the illustrations of the medieval romance of Barlaam and Joasaph; the second was her initial study of Armenian illuminations, specifically those of 12th, 13th, and 14th century manuscripts held at the library of the Mekhitarist monastery at San Lazzaro in Venice, Italy. Published in two volumes in 1936-1937, Der Nersessian’s second thesis was the first-ever comprehensive publication on Armenian manuscripts.
Working as an assistant to Gabriel Millet at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Der Nersessian organized the photographic collection of Early Christian and Byzantine art and archaeology. This work attracted the attention of American Byzantinists, such as Charles Morey, Albert Friend, and Walter Cook, who travelled to Paris since such a photographic archive did not exist in the United States at the time. In 1930-1931, upon recommendation by these colleagues, Der Nersessian was invited (while she was still a PhD student) to lecture at Wellesley College and so became the first female professor to teach Byzantine art in a women’s college. Eventually, Der Nersessian would become the chair of the art history department and director of the Farnsworth Museum at Wellesley.
Der Nersessian’s first encounter with Dumbarton Oaks was a lecture that she gave in 1939, a year before the institute was conveyed to Harvard. This lecture was one of a number that she was asked to deliver during World War II, including a series of five lectures held at the Morgan Library in New York and sponsored by New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, which were eventually published by Harvard University Press as Armenia and the Byzantine Empire: A Brief Study of Armenian Art and Civilization (1954). In the academic year of 1944/45, Der Nersessian was invited to Dumbarton Oaks as a Senior Fellow; the following year she became full faculty and a member of the Board of Scholars. While at Dumbarton Oaks, she resided on the grounds in what is now the Operations building at S and 32nd Streets, NW in Georgetown, joined by her sister in 1947.
At a period when Harvard University rarely hired female professors, Der Nersessian was appointed Henri Focillon Professor of Art and Archaeology in 1953. At Dumbarton Oaks, she served as deputy director of studies (1953-1954) and as acting director of studies twice (1954-1955 and 1961-1962). Der Nersessian also served as symposiarch for two of Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine symposia (1948 and 1958) and participated in a total of seven symposia.
Der Nersessian also traveled for her research, making two trips that would contribute significantly to her work. The first was a sabbatical in Jerusalem, taken during the 1951-1952 academic year. With her sister Arax, Der Nersessian visited the library of the Armenian Patriarchate for six months to study its collection of unpublished manuscripts. During the same trip, the sisters traveled to Egypt, Palestine, and to the Armenian churches of Aleppo, Syria and Antelias (near Beirut), Lebanon. They also used the visit to return to Istanbul for the first time since their departure 36 years earlier and reunite with their brother. In 1960, following a congress in Moscow, Der Nersessian visited Armenia and Georgia. She spent a month as the guest of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, studying the world’s premiere Armenian manuscript collection, that of Etchmiadzin, now held at the Matenadaran, the national library in Erevan.
During the nearly twenty years that she spent at Dumbarton Oaks, Der Nersessian’s research continued to focus on manuscript illuminations, as well as on Byzantine and Armenian art in general. Along with countless articles, she published a number of catalogs of manuscript collections, including those of Chester Beatty Library (1951, revised and republished in 1958), the Freer Gallery of Art (1963), and the Walters Art Gallery (1973), as well as miniatures from Isfahan, Iran (co-authored with Arpag Mekhitarian, 1986). Another joint effort was a text relating to the 10th century Armenian chapel, Aght’amar (1965), which combined Der Nersessian’s research with photographic documentation acquired by Dumbarton Oaks through one of its fieldwork projects. She also contributed a detailed study of the iconography of the Pareclession in the Kariye Camii in Istanbul, Turkey to volume 4 of Paul Underwood’s publication, The Kariye Djami (1975). The work for her magnum opus, Miniature Painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century, commenced while she was at Dumbarton Oaks and was the subject of her retirement speech in 1963. The volume was published posthumously in 1993.
Upon her retirement in 1963, Der Nersessian returned to Paris and continued to lecture at European universities, including the Collège de France. In October 1965, she returned to deliver her final lecture at Dumbarton Oaks, “Scholarship in Byzantine Art and Archaeology, 1940-1965” for the institution’s 25th anniversary celebration. Der Nersessian was awarded the status of Emerita and was made an honorary associate of the Board of Scholars. During her retirement she continued her research, publishing even more extensively, for a total of over a dozen titles and approximately 100 articles. She is well-known in the field of Byzantine Studies, having written various articles on Christian Art, Cilician illustrated manuscripts, unpublished Armenian manuscripts, and Coptic paintings in Egypt. In 1981, she assumed the directorship of the Revue des Études Arméniennes, the field’s premiere scholarly journal outside of Armenia, a title she held until her passing on July 5, 1989.
Der Nersessian was the only woman at Dumbarton Oaks to ever gain full professorship at Harvard University; the first woman to receive the Saint Gregory the Illuminator Medal of Honor from the Armenian Apostolic Church (in 1960); and the second woman to receive a gold medal from the Society of Antiquaries of London (in 1970).
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
These papers came to the Dumbarton Oaks Archives at an unknown date.
Additionally, a file of employee records and correspondence (Acting Director of Studies files and correspondence, 1960-1961) was transferred from the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives to the Dumbarton Oaks Archives on August 19, 2013 for inclusion in the Sirarpie Der Nersessian Papers and Photographs, 1929-2002 as OP.BZ.SDN-03.
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At Dumbarton Oaks:
- Sirarpie Der Nersessian Papers and Photographs, MS.BZ.005. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.
- Illuminated Manuscripts Photograph Study Collection, PH.BZ.005. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives.
- Black and White Photograph Collection, Illuminated Manuscripts. Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Washington, D.C. See boxes 9-17: Jerusalem: Armenian Patriarchate. http://www.doaks.org/library-archives/icfa/icfa_pdfs/doaks-icfa-illuminated-manuscripts.pdf.
At other institutions:
- Fonds Sirarpie Der Nersessian. Institut de Recherches sur les Miniatures Arméno-Byzantines. Paris, France. (Copy; originals held at Matenadaran, Erevan, Armenia.)
Subject access points
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Name access points
- Der Nersessian, Sirarpie (Creator)