Archive for March, 2011

Veil of Separation: The Altar Curtain in the Armenian Church

March 24th, 2011    |    No Comments »

During Great Lent, the altar curtain remains closed in the Armenian Church to symbolize man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and to emphasize the spirit of repentance and forbearance characterizing the 40-day period preceding Holy Week. Many churches replace the traditional altar curtain with dark and simple drapery bearing little or no embroidery.

Not until Palm Sunday, commemorating Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, is the curtain re-opened with the special Turen Patzek (door-opening) service.

The tradition of using altar curtains in the Armenian Church is almost as ancient as the church itself. In A.D. 335, Macarius, the Bishop of Jerusalem, penned a letter to Catholicos Vertanes, the elder son and second successor to St. Gregory the Illuminator, in which the bishop addressed a series of questions regarding baptism and the Eucharist.

In that 4th century document, Macarius directed Armenian clergy to make use of curtains to separate the altar from the chancel, and the chancel from the nave.

According to Abraham Terian’s seminal translation of the letter, Macarius writes: “The table of expiation is behind the veil, where the Holy Spirit descends; and the font is next to it in the same compartment, and out of honor set up on the right hand. And the clergy in their several ranks shall worship (there), and the congregation outside the veil, and the catechumens at the door, listening. Lest these partitions be effaced by encroachments, let each remain in his own station irreproachable.”

In the early history of the church, the altar curtain was a common ecclesiastical feature. In later centuries, some churches—including the Greek Orthodox Church—replaced the veil with iconostases (or screens), but this tradition was not widely adopted by the Armenian Church. Today, most Armenian churches make use of a single curtain to partition the altar from the congregation at various points in the Divine Liturgy.

Altar curtains also became an important element of Armenian Christian art. The curtain shown below is part of a set of four altar draperies made for the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin in 1791. It was imported from Madras, India—a city famous for its printed cloth in this period—where the curtain was likely completed by Indian artisans under the supervision of the local Armenian community.

The iconography of the curtain—which depicts Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and descent from the cross—happens to be Dutch. It is based on the first Bible printed in the Armenian language in Amsterdam in 1666, which included illustrations by the Dutch artist Christoffel van Sichem.

Altar curtain (Madras, 18th century).

Tracing the Tradition of Lenten Fasting

March 18th, 2011    |    No Comments »

(This brief description of the tradition of Lenten fasting is adapted from “The Golden Chain of the Sundays of Great Lent” (1971) by Archbishop Shnork Kalustian.)

Great Lent is a time for Christians to prepare for the glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ through prayer, introspection, and fasting.

The Scriptural basis for Lent resides in the 40-day period Christ spent in the wilderness following his baptism. In the words of St. Matthew’s Gospel (4:12): “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.”

The first recorded mention of Great Lent was at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (the same council also established the Nicene Creed used today in the Armenian Church). The reference to Lent occurs in a decision issued by the council to hold one of its three annual meetings before the 40-day Lenten period.

Five years later, in 330 A.D., St. Athanasius of Alexandria—one of the most influential early Church Fathers—called on his community to fast for 40 days before Holy Week. In these early days of the Church, the faithful were permitted one meal a day during Lent (the daily meals were prepared without meat or other animal products). Fasting was understood not as a complete abstinence from all food, but rather as a limiting of one’s intake to the most essential needs for survival.

The Apostolic Cannons—a series of decrees attributed to the Apostles and compiled in the second half of the 4th century—further stressed the need to observe fasting during Great Lent. According to article eight of the document, “The Apostles directed that 40 days of fasting must be observed to reject all evil, sin, and food before the days of sufferings of our Savior.”

In the centuries that followed, the tradition of fasting continued to evolve. Eventually churches in the West permitted the faithful to take more than one meatless meal per day. This practice gradually spread to the East.

Today the Armenian Church prescribes forbearance from all animal products for 40 days preceding Holy Week (fish is permitted on Sundays). In our day, many find this difficult and choose to keep the fast only on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Christ in the Desert (1872) by Ivan Kramskoy.

Zohrab Center Catalog is Now Live

March 10th, 2011    |    No Comments »

Scholars, researchers, students, and the general public can now access the contents of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center’s collection, thanks to the center’s new online catalog:

The catalog is a register of some 15,000 books found in the library’s rich collection. The Zohrab Center contains volumes of books covering a range of topics including Armenian literature, history, and culture.

While the center’s holdings are not in circulation, users are welcome to browse the online catalog to familiarize themselves with the center’s collection prior to visiting the facility in Manhattan. Alternatively, users are encouraged to contact Taleen Babayan, Zohrab Center Coordinator, to request digital copies when available.

In addition, the center is home to Armenian journals, newspapers and other rare artifacts—from unique Armenian prayer scrolls to a copy of the first Armenian Bible printed in 1666—that can only be accessed by visiting the center.

The Zohrab Center is open weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located at 630 Second Avenue in New York City. For information, call (212) 686-0710.

Visit the center’s website at for more information. Click here to view a brief video about the Zohrab Center’s work.

A copy of the first Armenian Printed Bilble (1666) is part of the Zohrab Center's collection.

New App from the Eastern Diocese

March 1st, 2011    |    No Comments »

The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America is pleased to announce VEMKAR—a new mobile application for the iPhone and iPod touch.

The app—available free of charge in the App Store and on iTunes—incorporates a wide range of features, including daily scripture readings, photo and video galleries, Armenian spiritual and folk music, a calendar of events, a directory of Diocesan parishes, a prayer request function, and much more. Log on to post a comment, share an image with friends, or read the latest news from the Eastern Diocese.

In Armenian, a “Vemkar” is the specially anointed stone that serves as a movable altar, which can be used for ritual functions in the absence of a permanent sanctuary. As a portable tablet, it allows the sacred power of the Armenian Church to be brought to people in even the most remote places. The Vemkar app places access to the Armenian Church in the palm of your hand.

Download the Vemkar app—and join a little bit of history in the making.

Screenshots from Vemkar, the new app of the Eastern Diocese.