Week 10: St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral


630 Second Avenue at 34th Street

Christian (Armenian Orthodox)

Groundbreaking: 1965
Consecration: 28 April 1968

This week’s visit, like last week’s, begins with a ferry ride. In fact, it was while I was on the ferry trying to get to South Brooklyn that something in Manhattan caught my eye: a low gold-covered dome of some sort atop a building tucked among the skyscrapers just south of the United Nations Headquarters. What is that? I thought. After all, it had a decidedly religious look to it, and I was looking for additional houses of worship to visit for this project. I decided to find out.

It turns out that it was the pyramidal dome of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church‘s Eastern Diocese of America. (Pyramidal domes, it turns out, are characteristic of Armenian architecture.) I’m sure I had seen it before; at the very least, I must have noticed it from the bus or the sidewalk on my way to or from the East 34th Street ferry terminal. But it still seemed a revelation to learn what was there.

The cathedral is not huge, especially in the context of its Murray Hill neighborhood, surrounded by soaring residential towers. Its stone walls are largely without decoration, and even with a golden dome that rises 36.6 meters (120 feet) above the street, St. Vartan has an unassuming, almost modest appearance.

But it also says that it is not of this time or of this place. Despite its contemporary details and fairly recent construction — the cathedral celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — the architecture draws inspiration from much older historical structures that are outside the architectural traditions of Western Europe and North America. I was in for a new experience, and I was looking forward to it.

The cathedral complex fills the entire block bounded by 34th and 35th streets and Second Avenue and the entrance to the Queens Midtown Tunnel. (Because of the tunnel entrance, this block is considerably smaller than the typical Manhattan block, which would normally stretch all the way to the next avenue, in this case First Avenue.) The cathedral itself sits at the northwest corner of the block, while the Diocesan House rises the length of the eastern edge. The remainder of the block, open to the southwest, is filled with a raised granite plaza. I don’t know if it is intentional, but the granite plaza feels like a reference to the forecourt of the tabernacle described in Exodus in the Old Testament: as you pass through the plaza, you realize you are in a place set apart from the world around it.

In this spot, of course, the cathedral looms large. Steps in the form of a half-circle lead up to massive bronze doors, which “depict in three-dimensional sculpted relief the conversion of Armenia to Christianity,” according to an article in The Armenian Weekly at the time the doors were dedicated in 2009. “The two panels focus on the baptism of King Drtad by St. Gregory the Illuminator in A.D. 301. The sculpted artwork also shows Queen Ashkhen, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, and Mount Ararat.” Above the doors relief sculptures depict the cathedral’s namesake, St. Vartan; these are the only carvings on an exterior of modest planes and lines otherwise devoid of almost any ornamentation. On either side is an arched niche that extends almost to the roof; in each is one of the narrow bands of stained glass that illuminate the cathedral’s interior. The resemblance to St. Hripsime Church, completed in 618, at the Holy See of the Armenian Church at Etchmiadzin, Armenia, is unmistakable.

The doors lead directly into a sort of narthex separated from the main sanctuary by a glass screen, but otherwise the interior is more or less one large space. It is completely devoid of columns because of its use of another characteristic of Armenian architecture: double sets of intersecting arches. Two massive arches span from east to west and two others from north to south, forming something like a #. The effect is impressive.

Rising above the square at the center of the # is the dome. Starting there and then moving your eyes down the narrow bands of stained-glass windows in the corners, you realize that symbols related to both Christianity and the Armenian experience are the primary decorative elements. At this point I was grateful to see a simple photocopied bifold brochure that described all the elements of the cathedral’s interior decoration.

I was also grateful to make the acquaintance of one of the two members of the cathedral staff who seemed to be on duty on this Saturday. As our conversation progressed, I learned that he is a deacon at the cathedral — and exactly the person I needed to speak with to try to begin to understand the meaning of everything I was seeing in this place.

The first panel of stained glass, depicting the Annunciation, the Nativity, and Christ’s baptism, is to the left on the opposite wall as you enter the cathedral and is to be read from top to bottom. The next is in the opposite corner, to the right of the main door as you enter the cathedral, and is to be read from bottom to top. And so it proceeds around the sanctuary. (Thank you to the deacon for helping me make sense of this. The windows are highly stylized and it takes some close examination to understand what you’re looking at.)

What struck me is how present Armenia and its history and particularly the Armenian genocide — mere footnotes, if anything, in the usual Western narrative of world history, though the genocide has received wider recognition in recent years — are in this place and in the windows. The ancestral homeland of the cathedral’s parishioners is commemorated in the two windows opposite the main altar.

The brochure notes, “By no means has the entire history of Armenia been a fight for survival. There were periods when Armenian culture flourished. The upper part of the window portraying St. Vartan commemorates the invention of the Armenian alphabet by Sts. Sahag and Mesrob. And at the very top is a representation of the construction of the St. Vartan Cathedral itself.” (If you are not familiar with the Armenian alphabet, this is the name of the cathedral in it: Սուրբ Վարդան Մայր Տաճար.)

The genocide, which lasted roughly between 1915 and 1923, is perhaps the darkest period of Armenian history. (My deacon tour guide himself was from Syria, where his family fled during the genocide.) Its 1.5 million victims — Armenian men, women, and children were systematically murdered by the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern-day Turkey — are memorialized in the other window on this wall opposite the main altar.

It is appropriate that this remembrance faces the main altar. My visit took place during Lent, the season immediately before Easter. During Lent, the altar itself is separated from the main sanctuary by a curtain, signifying humanity’s separation from and unworthiness before God and the need to repent. The curtain is reopened on Easter to symbolize Jesus Christ’s act of redemption — and the parishioners’ faith that no pain, including that to which their ancestors fell victim, is beyond the reach of God’s grace and love.

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