Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Armenian Mekhitarists of Venice

San Lazzaro degli Armeni is one of the smaller islands in the Venetian lagoon. A former leper colony, the island is now home to a monastery founded in 1717 by Abbot Mekhitar which is the mother house of the Mekhitarist Order, part of the Armenian Catholic Church. There are currently fifteen in the monastery (including four novices) which I have just had the pleasure of visiting during my stay in Venice. The guided tour began in the cloisters:

On the far side of the cloister is the church with its distinctive campanile:

Here are some photographs of the interior of the church, the side altars and the sacristy:

The Monastery is one of the world’s most important centres of Armenian culture owing to the scholarly work of the monks to preserve Armenian editions of works, many of which have been lost in their original versions.

Byron, who was greatly interested by the Armenian language, studied here for a time and helped with the compilation of an Armenian-English dictionary. In addition to a very impressive library, the monastery also owns a collection of ancient artefacts including Roman pottery, Chinese carvings, antique glassware and metalwork and an amazingly well preserved sarcophagus with the mummified remains of an Egyptian body which dates from the 7th century B.C.

Also on display in the monastery is the death mask of Komitas Vardapet, the Armenian priest and musicologist who foresaw the destruction of Armenian culture and set about preserving the musical traditions by collecting and notating over 3000 Armenian songs. After his arrest and deportation by the Ottoman government his mental health deteriorated and he died in a psychiatric hospital in Paris in 1935, driven to madness and despair by the Armenian Genocide. There is a statue of him in Yerevan, the Armenian Capital and the State Conservatoire there is named after him.

Statue of Komitas Vardapet in Yerevan, Armenia

If you are ever in Venice and wish to visit the Monastery, take the No. 20 Vaporetto (waterbus) from San Marco at 3.10pm. The daily tour of the monastery is coordinated with the arrival of the boat and is given in a number of languages (English, French and Italian) and costs 6E. The boat returns at 5.25pm.

The view of Venice from the Island of San Lazzaro
There is time after the tour to visit the monastery shop which sells, among other things, a rose liqueur made by the monks on the island. You can read more about San Lazzaro in a history of the monastery by Victor Langlois published in 1874 which is available as free download here. (Photos excl. Vardapet: Charles Cole)

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: