by David Zenian
Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia — Armenians have throughout the ages given more to their churches than any other institution, and it’s these gifts and offerings that make the Etchmiadzin Treasury-Museum unique — a reflection of the bond between church and nation.
In fact, the Treasury-Museum itself — founded in 1982 during the communist era when religion was shunned along with Armenia’s Christian-national heritage — is a gift from American-Armenian philanthropist and Armenian General Benevolent Union Life President Alex Manoogian and his late wife, Marie.
The project was spearheaded by the late Vazgen Catholicos in an effort to preserve and protect church treasures which had often been targets of communist confiscation or at times, desecration.
The Museum is located within the walled confines of Holy Etchmiadzin, the historical center of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the spiritual stronghold of a nation which officially adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 A.D.
The Treasury-Museum, complete with its majestic staircases made of marble imported from Italy and massive exhibition halls, houses more than 3,000 religious artifacts that trace the history of Armenian Christendom through the ages in Armenia and around the world.
Every item on display, which is meticulously catalogued, tells a different story of faith and national pride: a piece of wood from the actual cross of Jesus Christ, small fragments of bone from several saints including St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron saint of Armenia, and a fragment from Noah’s Ark which rested on Mount Ararat — the birthplace of the Armenian nation.
Religion intertwines with tradition, culture, folklore, history, literature and art to make the Treasury-Museum a reflecting pool of what has kept the Armenian nation alive through its most difficult years of occupation, Genocide and dispersion in the Diaspora.
Like all church treasures, the Holy Etchmiadzin collection was built up over the years as a testimonial of the faith of a nation and the attachment of the people to the homeland.
For the most part they are the offerings of individuals, and given the dispersion of Armenians around the world, entire communities as well.
Even some objects that had originally been given to other Armenian churches in ancient Armenia and around the world have found a safe heaven in the Etchmiadzin Treasury-Museum.
Moving from one display to another and from one exhibition hall to the other, visitors see the various examples of Armenian church life from architecture, to cross stones, coins, metal art objects, woodcarvings, rug weaving, needlework. the art of imprinting, miniatures and painting.
Each category reflects a certain era directly linked to the church from the 4th to the 19th century.
An ornately carved Khatchkar — cross stone — by the master craftsman Momik dating back to the year 1308 is a unique example of many others collected from the various regions of Armenia.
Along with the Treasury-Museum’s purely Armenian collection, the ancient coins of gold, silver, copper and nickel occupy a special place and track Armenia’s links with ancient Greece, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Seljuks, Mongols, and more recently the Ottoman and Russian Empires.
While the coins trace the political upheavals surrounding the church, metal art objects are a reflection of its devotion to tradition and detail.
Ritual objects, such as incense burners, cymbals, chalices, cups, communion boxes, urns, basins and other objects used during religious ceremonies compete for space at the Treasury-Museum with ornaments used during services such as belts, crosses, staffs, crowns and rings.
Although small in number, the treasures of Etchmiadzin also include woodcarved artifacts representing great historical and cultural value along with an extensive rug collection — including 18th century pieces from Karabakh.
Also in the so-called decorative arts category, the Treasury-Museum is famous for its unique collection of gold and silver threaded brocades and needlework — one of the inseparable expressions of Armenian culture.
This collection includes chasubles, bindings for manuscripts, book covers and holders, large and small curtains, cross banners, chalice covers, ritual vestments such as robes, belts, slippers, mitres and needlework with patriotic and religious themes that hold a unique place among the treasures of Etchmiadzin.
In similar detail, the fine Armenian art form of illustrated manuscripts is also of special importance because they too were used as major vehicles of religious expression.
The first samples of this art date back to the 7th century and continued through the years. These Bibles and religious writings constitute an important resource for research and study.
Reflecting the Armenian presence in the far corners of the world, a directory of the origin of gifts and offerings sent to Etchmiadzin reads like the index of the World Almanac.
Paintings from France, artwork from England, silver from India, gold from Iran, paintings from Europe, the United States and the Middle East and thousands of gifts and offerings are a living proof of the special links between the Mother See and Armenians scattered across all corners of the world.