On the same Mount Ararat whose twin peaks cradled Noah’s Ark, Christ revealed to St. Gregory the Illuminator the spot where the first Christian church was to be established: the Holy Etchmiadzin, the Mother See of Armenia. An image of this episode, stitched onto Chinese silk in 1741 by wealthy artisans in Persian New Julfa, blends mythology with history, and combines religious with national identity. It tells the story of the death of paganism, the foundation of Christianity, and the endurance of Armenian culture across epochs and empires.
It is, in fact, the third representation of this event on display at the Met’s Armenia! Exhibition, on view until January 13: we see the same story on a fourth-century stele, and then again on a processional banner from the monastery at Lake Sevan. According to this story, the jealous King Tridates had been transformed into a wild beast, Sweeney-style, for his rejection of Christianity. By curing him, St. Gregory founded the world’s first Christian nation. This church, and this nation, would survive alongside, among, and at the whim of many empires, from the Sasanians and Byzantines to the Mongols, Czars, Safavids, Ottomans—even the Soviets.