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Vank Cathedral

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Active ImageHoly Savior Cathedral also known as Vank Cathedral and The Church of the Saintly Sisters, is the most visited cathedral in Isfahan, Iran. Vank means "cathedral" in the Armenian language. Among the churches built in the Jolfa District of Isfahan, the magnificent and architecturally significant "Vank" Cathedral is the most famous.

Jolfa is the Armenian and Christian quarter of Isfahan which was established in 1603 during Shah Abbas I Safavid. Jolfa is located on the south bank of the Zayandeh River and is linked to the Muslim part of Isfahan by Si-o-se-pol bridge. The town of Jolfa on the Araxes River in Azarbaijan (now on Iran's northern border) at one time was the major Armenian settlement until Shah Abbas I imported Armenian families to new Jolfa in Isfahan. Today, Jolfa is a quiet area of Isfahan with predominant Christian community.

Active ImageThe varying fortunes and independence of this suburb across the Zayandeh River and its eclectic mix of European missionaries, mercenaries and travelers can be traced almost chronologically in the cathedral's combination of building styles and contrasts in its external and internal architectural treatment.

When the first Armenians arrived in Jolfa one of their first tasks was to erect a monastery for their priests to replace the one they had lost in Armenia. Within the monastery they established a small church which they called the "All Healing" (Amna Perkich) in 1606. The present cathedral was built on the site of this church some 50 years later. Work started in 1655 C.E. and the cathedral was completed in 1664 C.E.

Active ImageThe paintings in the church were paid for by the Armenian merchant, Avedic Stepanusian, and were executed by three monks, Havans, Stepanus and Minas.
The area surrounding the cathedral also includes a bell-tower, erected in 1702, a printing press, founded by Bishop Khachatoor, a library established in 1884, and a museum which was opened in 1905 and which contains many historical objects and manuscripts, including the original grant of land.

Construction is believed to have begun in 1606, and completed with major alterations to design between 1655 and 1664 under the supervision of Archbishop David. The cathedral consists of a domed sanctuary, much like a Persian mosque, but with the significant addition of a semi-octagonal apse and raised chancel usually seen in western churches. The cathedral's exteriors are in relatively modern brickwork and are exceptionally plain compared to its elaborately decorated interior.

Active ImageThe interior is covered with fine paintings and gilded carvings and includes a wainscot of rich tile work. The delicately blue and gold painted central dome depicts the Biblical story of creation of the world and man's expulsion from Eden.

Pendentives throughout the church are painted with a distinctly Armenian motif of a cherub's head surrounded by folded wings. The ceiling above the entrance is painted with delicate floral motifs in the style of Persian miniature. Two sections, or bands, of murals run around the interior walls: the top section depicts events from the life of Jesus, while the bottom section depicts tortures inflicted upon Armenian martyrs by the Ottoman Empire.

Apart from the paintings which are imitations of Italian styles, the architecture and all the decorations are totally Iranian.

Active ImageThe courtyard contains a large freestanding belfry towering over the graves of both Orthodox and Protestant Christians. A tile work plaque inscribed in Armenian can be seen by the entrance to the cathedral; graves are also placed along the exterior wall before the entrance, with inscriptions in Armenian. In one corner of the courtyard is a raised area with a memorial to the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey. Across the courtyard and facing the cathedral is a building housing a library and museum; outside of this building are several carved stones showing scenes from the Bible.

Active ImageThe library contains over 700 handwritten books and many invaluable and unique resources for research in Armenian and medieval European languages and arts. The museum displays numerous artifacts from the history of the cathedral and the Armenian community in Isfahan, including:

• The 1606 edict of Shah Abbas I establishing New Julfa

• Several edicts by Abbas I and his successors condemning and prohibiting

• Interference with, or persecution of, Armenians and their property and affairs in New Julfa

• A historic printing press and the first book printed in Iran

• Vestments, monstrances, chalices, and other sacramental artifacts

Active Image• Safavid costumes, tapestries, European paintings brought back by Armenian merchants, embroidery, and other treasures from the community's trading heritage

• Ethnological displays portraying aspects of Armenian culture and religion

• An extensive display of photographs, maps, and Turkish documents (with translation) related to the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Turkey.

The cathedral has greatly influenced the architecture and decorative treatment of many subsequent and smaller Orthodox churches in the entire Persian-Mesopotamian region.

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