Armenian Cathedral of St James

Thursday 19th June 2014

We had classes in the morning and a free afternoon. I wandered through the Old City again and found my way to the Armenian Quarter we had visited the day before. I had learned that they are the First Nation to accept Christianity as the state religion. They also had a very early presence in Jerusalem, predating Constantine. So they are an ancient Christian presence in Jerusalem.

I arrived at the Armenian Cathedral [or Convent] of St James, the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate, at 3.00pm in time for the Divine Office.

Inscription in Arabic, Armenian and French  above the entrance door to the Cathedral of St James

Inscription in Arabic, Armenian and French above the entrance door to the Cathedral of St James

About 20-30 seminarians in long, black robes processed into the Cathedral. Several priests, in long black robes with the distinctive conical caps – representing Mount Ararat in Armenia, the reported lodging place of Noah’s Ark – of the Armenian clergy, also came in. The service began with a reading in Armenian. This was followed by some solo chanting, three robed seminarians taking turns, sometimes solo, sometimes alternating voices. On a couple of occasions one of the priests also chanted from the book. There was also mass choir of all the seminarians chanting together, very harmonious. At one point, one of them incensed the book, the ministers, and then proceeded around the church incensing the icons. It was a sacred, solemn, religious chant, very beautiful.

After the service was finished I wandered around the church. I noticed several people visiting a side chapel and kneeling in front of the altar and prostrating, kissing the ground under the altar, much as I had seen that morning at the traditional site of the crucifixion at Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Chapel of St James in the Armenian Cathedral

Chapel of St James in the Armenian Cathedral


When it was vacant, I visited the site and took a photograph, quite unaware of the significance of the place.
Inside the Chapel of St James in the Armenian Cathedral

Inside the Chapel of St James in the Armenian Cathedral


Later I saw a priest guiding a pilgrim around the features of the church. He was speaking in Armenian, but I pricked up my ears when I heard the word “Compostella”. I asked the priest if he could explain to me the connection with Compostella. Fortunately, he understood and spoke English.

He explained to me that according to the scriptures, the Apostle James was beheaded.

James Killed and Peter Imprisoned (Acts 12:1-3)

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.)

He went on to say that the body of St James was thrown into the sea where it was miraculously transported to Spain. There the Spanish church authorities recognised the body as those of the Apostle James. They began to reverence the relic, built a church, which went on to become an important pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostella, to which I had walked on pilgrimage during April and May.

Next he explained to me that the head of St James did not go with the body, but was buried here at this spot, where the Apostle James is said to have been beheaded. Hence the devotion I had witnessed earlier.

I felt quite excited by this discovery. I felt as if something had been completed. I had visited the pilgrimage site in Santiago de Compostella where the relics of the body of St James are reverenced. I had now visited the Armenian Cathedral of St James where the martyrdom of St James is said to have taken place and where his head is buried. There was a sense of completion. I had brought head and body together! I re-entered the chapel with greater reverence and prostrated on the site as I had seen others do, completing my pilgrimage in homage to St James, body and head.

Under the altar in the Chapel to St James, an image of the head of the Apostle, above the spot where he is said to have been martyred and where the head is buried

Under the altar in the Chapel to St James, an image of the head of the Apostle, above the spot where he is said to have been martyred and where the head is buried


The priest had also told me about the request that James and his brother John made to Jesus and his response as recorded in the Gospel of Mark 10:35ff, which we had studied a couple of days before:

The Request of James and John

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The event is depicted in a painting just outside the chapel of St James which I had not noticed before, but now it made sense.

Painting of St James and St John on the right and left hand sides of Jesus in glory

Painting of St James and St John on the right and left hand sides of Jesus in glory


They are each holding a “cup”, as Jesus had asked were they able to drink the cup that he drinks, that is to say, suffering death at the hands of his/their enemies. In the lower left is the beheaded body of the Apostle James, who has obviously fulfilled the challenge that had been issued to him. From the similarity of garb above and below, I think the figure in the lower right must be the elderly St John, writing the Gospel and Epistles that are attributed to him. Interestingly, I think John is the only Apostle not to have been martyred! In the upper panel of the painting the two brothers are depicted on the right and left hands of Jesus in glory, as they had requested!

I was quite excited by my discovery of this connection with St James (in Jerusalem) and Santiago (St James, in Spain). It made sense of one of the statues I had seen earlier in the forecourt but of which I had not been able to make any sense earlier because I could not read the Aramaic.

Statue of a pious woman  supporting the head of St James while two angels kneel in reverence on either side.

Statue of a pious woman supporting the head of St James while two angels kneel in reverence on either side.


As I left the Cathedral of St James, I felt quite moved. For a moment, I touched into the deep emotions I had felt in the Cathedral in Santiago. There was a definite sense of connection between the two places associated with St James, a sense of completion. I was very happy and grateful that providence had enabled this discovery.

For more information on the church, here are a couple of websites:
http://www.armenian-patriarchate.com/holy-places/jerusalem-old-city.html
http://www.seetheholyland.net/church-of-st-james/
http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/StJames.html

I am sure that other pilgrims of the Camino will share my excitement at this connection between Santiago de Compostela and Jerusalem, two of the ancient pilgrimage sites of Europe and the Middle East, linked in the story of the Apostle St James.

Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!

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One thought on “Armenian Cathedral of St James

  1. Russell Smith

    Thanks for this post! I was in Jerusalem earlier this year and spent time in the Cathedral of St. James. That statue in the courtyard has puzzled me – and you provided the answers. Interestingly, I learned from Simon Sebag Montefiore’s history of Jerusalem that Napoleon donated his tent to the cathedral of St. James. The chasubles worn by the priests in the Cathedral are fashioned from the fabric of that tent.

    Reply

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