Treasure Chest of Jerusalem
St. James Cathedral inspires awe in all who enter its otherworldly realm
By Jirair Tutunjian
In the 18th century, French traveler Le Sieur Turpetin described the 12th century St. James Armenian Cathedral of Jerusalem as “one of the most beautiful churches in Levant” while British author W.H. Bartlett proclaimed it “one of the most sumptuous in the East and in many ways a repository of Armenian art.” Two centuries later, novelist-essayist Aldous Huxley wrote: “The great church glows like a dim religious merry-go-round. In all of Jerusalem it was the only oasis of cheerfulness.”
Visitors from far and wide are drawn to this wonderland of historic, spiritual and artistic marvels secluded behind the gates of the Armenian Quarter. Here is a mini-tour of the priceless gems contained in what some consider the centerpiece of Armenian Jerusalem’s national inheritance.
Sourp Klkhateer Chapel. Under the tiny chapel’s ornate altar lies the head of St. James the Major, the first martyr-apostle. He was beheaded in 44 A.D. by order of Herod Agripas. The shrine is covered by a red circular stone. Its 18th century wooden doors are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoise shells.
Main Altar. The vast and gilded structure stands atop the burial place of St. James the Lesser, brother of Christ and the first bishop of Jerusalem. The elevated altar is covered with paintings of saints and martyrs.
Oil Lanterns. There are more than 300 olive-oil burning lanterns, mostly concentrated at the centre of the edifice. They were made by Armenian craftsmen and donated by pilgrims.
The Cruciform Edifice. This fine example of medieval Armenian architecture stands at the center of the cathedral. Four square pillars rise to form arches which support the dome with intersecting ribs. The cupola is a replica of the 10th century Church of Haghpad in Armenia.
St. Stephen North Chapel. One of the dozen or so chapels within the cathedral, St. Stephen’s is located in the north side of the building. For generations, community members have been baptized here in a font dominated by the cross and chains that Patriarch Krikor Chainbearer (Shghtayagir) wore in the 17th century as he traveled across the Diaspora to raise money for the near-bankrupt Armenian Patriarchate. In 2015, the daughter of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West was baptized here.
Ancient Oil Paintings. A constellation of close to 100 paintings of saints, martyrs, demons, cherubs, Christ and God cover the walls. Due to oxidization caused by soot, heat, olive oil vapor, and perspiration, the paintings are very dark. With the help of Italian restorers, the Patriarchate is working to return these masterpieces to their original luster.
The Throne of St. James the Lesser. Facing the main altar is this engraved wooden canopy embedded with mother-of-pearl and turtle shells. Constructed in 1656, the throne is unoccupied year round except on St. James Day when the Patriarch officiates a special ceremony.