Keys To the Orient – The Armenian Cathedral In Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City Part 24)

Ani, the ancient capital of the Armenian kingdom is located in extreme eastern Turkey, just a few kilometers away from the border with Armenia. The city is today as it has been since the 14th century, a series of scattered and evocative ruins. During the High Middle Ages, Ani was known as the “city of 1001 churches.” Ani boasted a population of 100,000 and was known for its splendid religious architecture, palaces and fortifications. The city began a descent into ruin after it was sacked by the Mongols in 1236. This was one of many times that invaders brought the Armenians to heel. Whether it was Turks, Mongols or Tatars the Armenians were ravaged by successive waves from the east time and again. Because of this, tens of thousands of Armenians were uprooted. They fled to safer havens both near and far from their homeland. In doing so they also carried a rich tradition of Christianity to their new homelands. One place where this is most apparent happens to be in the Ukrainian city of Lviv’s Armenian quarter. This was where Armenian merchants made their home. Just as Ani was crumbling, Lviv was rising. The Armenians in Lviv recreated a bit of Ani’s magnificence in their new hometown. The Armenian Cathedral in Lviv, modelled on the one in Ani, turned out to be symbolic of the Armenian diaspora’s ability to preserve their culture in a faraway land.

The Cathedral of Ani

The Cathedral of Ani (Credit: Antonio Perez Rio)

The Arrival of the Armenians in Lviv
Armenians began settling in Ukraine long before Lviv was a city. An influx of Armenians to Crimea started in the year 1040 following the invasion of their lands by Seljuk Turks. They eventually began to spread in small pockets northward. The founder of Lviv, King Danylo Romanovich invited Armenians to help settle the newly created city. Within the walled Old Town, Armenians were given their own district which was centered on today’s Virmenska (Armenian in Ukrainian) Street. This was where they plied their trades as savvy merchants and craftsmen, known especially for their skill with jewelry and fashioning clothes. Their connections with the east made them valuable as middlemen in the trade between Europe and the near East. Many Armenians were also multi-lingual, able to converse in near Eastern languages, a skill that very few other traders in Lviv had. Across several centuries the Armenians developed a wide array of social welfare organizations within their community. These included Lviv’s first bank as well as schools, hospitals, a theatre and library. Later they would found their own publishing house.

By far the most notable and enduring work of Lviv’s Armenians was the construction of what today is known as the Armenian Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. The cathedral was the product of grand designs. This seems fitting, since Armenians were some of the oldest and most devout adherents of the Christian faith. Armenia was the first Christian nation to officially adopt the faith all the way back in 301 AD. They also achieved another notable religious feat in Lviv, constructing the city’s first cathedral. The structure, conceived in the latter half of the 14th century by the Silesian architect Doring, was modeled after the famous Cathedral of Ani. Built from cut stone, the cathedral’s walls were a meter and a half thick. It was topped with a dome supported by hollow ribs that were made from earthenware jugs. Later in the 15th century, the cathedral was surrounded with an arcaded gallery, the southern part of which can still be seen today.

Exterior view of the Armenian Cathedral

Exterior view of the Armenian Cathedral (Credit: Wikipedia)

An Infusion of Orientalism – The Armenian Ensemble
Fire, that constant scourge of Lviv’s early architecture, badly damaged the Cathedral in 1527. This led to the construction of the stone belfry that today towers above the edifice. The Cathedral’s central part or nave underwent two major upgrades, an extension in 1630, followed by a revision in 1723. The latter revision also provided the church with its elaborate neo-Baroque decorative elements. It is incredible that despite or more likely because of these changes, the Cathedral maintains its integrity as a singular example of near Eastern sacral architecture fused with the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The integration of Orientalism and European elements is especially fitting in Lviv, a city located on the fringes of Europe and close to the edge of Asia.

Interior of the Armenian Cathedral in Lviv

Interior of the Armenian Cathedral in Lviv (Credit: Robin Schull)

It is not just the Cathedral that preserves the essence of the historic Armenian community in Lviv, influences can also be found in its immediate surroundings. These include the Archbishop’s Palace, a former convent and the Cathedral’s courtyard. It is the courtyard area that holds the most memorable relics. Here set into the walls and walkways are tombstones, the remnants of an ancient cemetery. Up until the inception of Austrian rule over Lviv in 1772, cemeteries were adjacent to churches. The Austrians ended this practice due to the fact that this practice could spread disease. Most of the tombstones in the courtyard date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The most famous of these is Stephan V’s, the patriarch of Armenia, who died in Lviv in 1551. Also noticeable is the carved Composition of Calvary which displays the Passion of Christ. It is set beneath an 18th century wooden chapel. The entire complex is known as the Armenian ensemble. It is truly a must see in a city filled with them, evidence of the near east in far eastern Europe.

The Bishops Palace and Belfry at the Armenian Cathedral Complex

The Bishops Palace and Belfry at the Armenian Cathedral Complex (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

Re-consecration & Reconstruction – A Historic Resurrection
The Armenians of Lviv managed to thrive under centuries of Polish and Austrian Rule. It was only with the coming of World War II and the post-war Soviet era that the community suffered grave damage. The Soviets closed down the Cathedral and made it a storage site for sacral art. The last administrator was arrested and died while imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag camp. Almost all of Lviv’s Armenian community was forcibly expulsed to Poland. This seemed to be the end of the Armenians in Lviv, but once the Soviet Union collapsed the cathedral became a focal point to preserve and share the legacy of this historic community. At the outset of the 21st century the Cathedral was re-consecrated. Reconstruction efforts have been funded by among others the Foundation of Culture and Heritage of Polish Armenians. Instead of becoming a crumbling ruin like its exalted predecessor in Ani, the Armenian Cathedral has become a symbol of preservation of both sacral architecture and the Armenian community it has sustained for the last seven hundred and fifty years.

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