Articles & Reports

Design in Center and Periphery: Three Generations of Armenian Ceramic Artists in Jerusalem
Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, Tel-Aviv University



This article discusses the life and works of three Armenian families of ceramic artists emigrating from Kütahya in Turkey and settling in Jerusalem since 1919. These artists belong to Jerusalem's long-standing Armenian community, which in the twentieth century has grown smaller and become marginal to the main power players in Palestine and Israel. Nonetheless, their art has permeated the canon of taste in Israel through its creation of a world of eastern and local elements and has also served to represent this taste to the outside world. The assiduous presence of Armenian ceramics can be attributed to its multiple layers of idyllic images: birds, deer, fish, trees, flowers, and specific Bible stories. These images can be interpreted similarly by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike as religious symbols of hope and faith, and as narrative expressions of paradise and beauty.

Keywords: Armenian ceramics, Jerusalem, Kütahya

Historical and Cultural Context

The life and works of three Armenian families of ceramic artists immigrating from Kütahya and settling in Jerusalem since 1919, presents a micro-history of cultural interactions in two geographical settings during the past century.1

The city of Kütahya in Turkey, birthplace of the Armenian ceramic artists, members of the Ohannessian, Balian and Karakashian families, has been the center of a unique ceramic industry since the post-medieval period, with Armenian artists in its vanguard since the eighteenth century. As early as the fourteenth century, and mainly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one could discern large groups of Armenian artists creating ceramic tiles for wall decoration used in churches and mosques, as well as ceramic ware.

Extensive evidence of Kütahya ceramic practice, at least since the seventeenth century, is provided by the numerous ceramic tiles made by Armenian artists and sent as gifts to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem. Figurative in part and painted predominantly in blue, green and yellow strokes, these tiles still decorate the walls of the Cathedral of St. James; they are characterized by elaborate drawings, and only some of them accommodate multiple figures.

Kütahya art is occasionally mentioned in texts addressing traditional ceramics, but the most methodical study of Armenian church tiles in Jerusalem is that of John Carswell.2

After the establishment of the new Republic of Turkey, production of ceramics in Kütahya was taken up by Turkish craftsmen, focusing mainly on imitations of Iznik ceramic. The Iznik ceramic industry traditionally served courtly and other patrons, and has developed a vocabulary of forms and patterns with diverse meanings, identifiable schools, etc. The major scholars of the Iznik School ­ John Carswell, Julian Raby, and A. Lane 3 ­ have dedicated studies to Iznik art: its history, artists, trends, and intricate affinities to various patrons.4

The body of studies, evolving in the early twentieth century, set out mainly to describe, catalogue, and date ceramic art in Iznik, Kütahya and other loci in Turkey between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Little attention was paid to the social or conceptual study of this ceramic corpus. The scholars regarded the production of ceramics in the nineteenth century as an inferior craft that imitated the ancient patterns. Production in the twentieth century was similarly perceived as mass production. It is for this reason that the Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem were also omitted from the scope of that research, and the unique contribution of this art form to the pottery tradition on the one hand, and to the city of Jerusalem on the other, was never explored. While Jerusalem is mentioned in reviews and research pertaining to the ceramics of Iznik and Kütahya in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, no Jerusalem-based twentieth century ceramic artists are mentioned in them. Scholars studying the tradition also avoided mentioning groups of twentieth century Armenian artists from Kütahya for political reasons.

This is despite the fact that the Armenian ceramic artists in Jerusalem continue the artistic tradition of their Kütahya ancestors, and form – to the best of my knowledge – a singular group of families. The way of life and artistic work of these families for three generations can attest to and shed light on unfamiliar aspects in the history of ceramic art in Kütahya. Furthermore, the Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem represent a way of life and work seldom encountered in the twentieth century; they reflect worldviews held by inhabitants of the Old City of Jerusalem and its unique ambience.

The Armenian ceramics of Jerusalem have been alluded to in a number of essays and articles in the daily press, but only rarely were they studied in depth. In 1986 Ha'aretz Museum in Tel Aviv staged the show The Armenian Pottery of Jerusalem, an inceptive, trailblazing exhibition in the study of the Jerusalem school of Armenian ceramics, never before featured as a unique art form. In the exhibition catalogue, curator Yael Olenik traced the history of this school in Jerusalem from its beginnings. She presented the works by at least two generations of Armenian ceramic artists since 1922.

In the exhibition and catalogue5, Olenik presented mainly the tools, and reviewed the formal tradition and possible sources of these workshops. In addition, she laid an initial infrastructure for a future study of the school of Armenian ceramics. At the same time, Olenik, like many other scholars, tended to ascribe this tradition to that of Islamic painting in Iznik and Kütahya, and neglected to delve into its differences from the new practice of the workshops in the local studios.

In January 2000, Eretz-Israel Museum in Tel Aviv held another exhibition, Birds of Paradise, dedicated to the work of Marie Balian. The show endeavored to place her work within the three generation long tradition of Armenian ceramics in Jerusalem. The present writer was the curator of the exhibition and catalogue.6

Excepting these two catalogues, no scholar has explored Jerusalem's Armenian ceramics in depth. Nor has a comprehensive study been published, despite the fact that ever since its emergence, these artifacts, like the pottery art of Iznik and Kütahya, have been purchased in great numbers; they have been presented as official gifts to distinguished guests, and used to decorate the Residence of the President of Israel.

The study of the unique artistic production of these families in Jerusalem will concentrate on the following issues:

a) How did a new social setting shape a new identity?

b) How is this new identity reflected in the images and subjects of their ceramic production?

c) How does a socially marginal group influence mainstream consumption?

The purpose of this paper is to present the work of the Armenian ceramic school as a distinct artistic form, with its own unique chronology and development.

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1. The author's book on this topic appeared in Hebrew under the title The Armenian Kütahya Ceramics of Jerusalem 1919-2000, Tel Aviv, 2000. An English version of the book will appear in 2003. back to article

2. John Carswell, Tiles and Pottery from the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem, Oxford, 1972. back to article

3. John Carswell, Iznik Pottery, London, 1998; N. Atasoy and Julian Raby, Iznik the Pottery of Ottoman Turkey, London, 1989; A. Lane, 'The Ottoman Pottery of Iznik', Ars Orientalis 2, 1957, pp. 241-281. back to article

4. Raby, Iznik, pp. 101-115. back to article

5. Yael Olenik, The Armenian Pottery of Jerusalem, Haaretz Museum, Tel Aviv, 1986). back to article

6. N. Kenaan-Kedar, Birds of Paradise, Marie Balian and the Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem, Eretz-Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, 2000. back to article

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Design in Center and Periphery: Three Generations of Armenian Ceramic Artists in Jerusalem
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Design in Center and Periphery  • Issue 4