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Prayer Reveals the Living Spirit Behind the Met Museum Exhibit

It was altogether appropriate that, a few days after Thanksgiving, New York’s St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral should ring with “spiritual gratitude” for the monumental “Armenia!” exhibit at the world famous Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The special “Evening Hour” (or Vespers) service on Tuesday, November 27 was a collaboration between the Met and the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, and attracted museum members, locals from the cathedral’s Midtown neighborhood, as well as faithful from the Armenian community.

The service was conceived as a glimpse into the religious environment that gave rise to the artworks on display at the Met exhibit.

It began with a majestic procession of more than a dozen priests and deacons, led by Diocesan Primate the Very Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan, to the  joyous chant Oorakh Ler (“Rejoice, O holy church”) sung by the Cathedral Choir led by  Maestro Khoren Mekanejian.

Among the guests attending were Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian and Dr. Helen Evans, who brought her students from Columbia University.

As the principal organizer and curator of the Met Museum exhibition, Dr. Evans traveled to many centers of Armenian art around the world to collect the items on display.

The “Song of the Hours” service, a treasury of mystical and moving psalms, prayers, rituals, and meditations—composed largely by renowned fathers of the Armenian Church—were chanted mainly in modern English during the service.

But as deacons with their censers filled the atmosphere with the aroma of incense, it was easy to imagine oneself worshipping in one of the medieval masterpieces of Armenian Church architecture—like the 7th-century St. Hripsime Church in Armenia, which inspired the design of St. Vartan Cathedral.

As explained in a beautifully prepared service booklet for the occasion, in earlier times the daily onset of darkness made people vulnerable to danger. In response, Armenian Christians would “pray at the setting of the sun, giving thanks to God for having led them peacefully through the day,” and asking for His guidance and protection through the coming night.

Providential and Sublime

In his inspiring welcoming message, the Primate paid tribute to this year’s 50th anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral, and noted the spiritual connection of the church to the many artifacts displayed in the “Armenia!” exhibit.

“Perhaps it is providential that this sensational, once-in-a-lifetime exhibit should coincide with our golden anniversary year. That alone would justify our decision to conduct a solemn Vespers service, to thank God, and to thank everyone whose efforts brought so many priceless treasures of Armenian artistry to this city—where they have inspired thousands of people who otherwise might have no notion of the art created by the Armenian people,” he said with emphasis.

Fr. Findikyan referred to the exhibition’s 140 items of explicitly religious character, including illuminated manuscripts, early printed Bibles, sophisticated carved doors to a medieval monasteries, liturgical vestments, altar coverings, and bejeweled repositories. He called all of these works “expressions of the abiding faith of the Armenian people—the first nation in the world to formally embrace Christianity.”

The prayers and chants “transmitted to a community of faithful far removed from the place of their original compilation, are nonetheless in continuity with our ancestor’s faith and most sacred convictions,” Fr. Findikyan said in conclusion, as he thanked Dr. Helen Evans for her “exquisite and meticulous” work in curating the exhibition.

Following the Lord’s Prayer sung in Armenian, and recited in English, the crowd of some 200 people attended a reception in the Diocesan Center’s Haik and Alice Kavookjian Auditorium.

Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian called the prayer service “the crowning of the ‘Armenia!’ exhibition, where the entire focus was on Armenian culture and art.”

For Dr. Helen Evans, the service was “exceptionally beautiful. It was wonderful to have the Armenian Church community do this for the Met Museum, and for our students from Columbia University.”

And for Nazli Onder, born in Diarbekir of Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkish background, the evening vespers service was “impressive and deep.” A doctoral student at Leeds University in England, where she concentrates on the Armenian diaspora, said that the occasion marked her first visit to America’s magnificent cathedral of St. Vartan.

Click here to view photos of the evening service.

By Florence Avakian. Photos by Albin Lohr-Jones.

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